A planned summit meeting on Tuesday between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been riveting the world, but will it make real progress on Pyongyang’s denuclearization? With Trump’s “America First” policy, how will concerns of U.S. allies such as Japan be affected by his deal-making with Kim? Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage discussed the meeting’s limits and possibilities in an interview with The Japan News on Wednesday.
Q: What is the danger of North Korea having nuclear weapons and missiles? What do you suggest we do about it?
Richard Armitage: I think a regime who imprisons their own people, has in the past attacked [South Korea’s presidential] Blue House, has shot down U.S. aircraft, has captured the USS Pueblo, [killed high-level officials of] the government of South Korea in Yangon, is not one that is capable of being trusted with nuclear weapons.
I’m suggesting that talking with North Koreans is much better than fighting with our hands and our feet. But I think we have to be very open-eyed, clear-eyed about the nature of this regime and realize that in the past Japan, the United States and others have been fooled by the regime.
I think if we take a very hard, cold-eyed look at North Korea, that Mr. Trump has the best possibility of a success, over an extended period of time, not on the 12th of June.
Mr. Trump originally started off saying that we’re going to have complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, and over time his position has changed. He now says that, well, this meeting is going to be a get-together, a get-to-know-you.
But I think that’s not a bad thing. I’d much rather [have] a meeting of the heads of state and then let experts get together and figure out how to move forward, than let one nonexpert, our president, make decisions that could affect South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Q: What do you see as the problem with the Trump administration?
A: From my point of view, the problem with the Trump administration is they don’t trust what they see as the deep state. The deep state is the bureaucracy, whether it’s State Department, CIA, even Defense Department.
He’s also very erratic in his decision-making. There’s no real, well-defined political process to come to decisions. There are tweets in the morning. It’s very frustrating to many folks in our society.
Q: How do you see President Trump as a dealmaker?
A: I do not value him as a dealmaker. He’s been in office over 500 days now, he’s not made any deals. He has broken deals, whether it’s TPP, the Iran nuclear program, the Paris climate change, maybe on NAFTA, we don’t know yet. He’s turned his back at least temporarily on Canada, Mexico and the EU. So that’s a deal-breaker.
Lessons from 2008 concessions
Q: What is your view on the George W. Bush administration’s concessions to North Korea in 2008, including removing its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism?
A: What I have to say — and I have very strong views on this — is that Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice was our secretary of state. We had earlier in the Bush administration hit on something that actually hurt the North Koreans: We cut off their funding through a Macau bank. It was $25 million that went right into [Kim’s father] Kim Jong Il’s pockets and he reacted very strongly to this.
Dr. Rice thought she could get a deal by being nice to the North Koreans and giving them back their 25 million, and she didn’t appropriately tie in our allies. I think she failed and it introduced, in the short term, a little discomfort in Japan.
I think there are several lessons. The first and most important is to make sure that we fully share with the Republic of Korea and Japan our knowledge. I’d be very disappointed if [Prime Minister] Mr. [Shinzo] Abe didn’t get from our president a full sharing of, for instance, the letter that came from North Korea.
The second lesson is we ought to take account of how many times we’ve made agreements with the North Koreans, and how much money it’s cost us and the South Koreans. It’s cost plenty. Every time they say they’ll do something, and they always do less. Will they always be that way? I don’t know. But we have to have that in the back of our minds as we move forward.
Q: Are there feasible military options against North Korea to denuclearize it?
A: First of all, I want to give the Trump administration some credit. Their conversations about military options actually were helpful in getting Kim Jong Un to think about talking.
It depends on whether you’re talking about preemptive military action or preventative war. Preemptive military actions are not legal. A preventative war, that is, war to stop a war, is in international law. Is it a good thing? No. Would it be terribly destructive for North and South Korea and U.S. forces and possibly Japan? Yes. So, when I’m asked a question like that, is it an option? Yes. Is it a good option? No. Is it a neutral option? No. It’s a bad option. But it is an option.
Q: What would be criteria for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization?
A: I have heard them [North Korea] say they are willing to discuss denuclearization, and not further define it. One of my understandings is one of the difficulties we’ve had in Panmunjom over the last 12 days is we haven’t been able to agree on definitions.
The definition starts with complete, and complete starts with something that’s called a declaration. [That means] a nuclear power declaring clearly, sincerely and fully what they have, where it is, and what they intend to do with it. That’s the first start. That doesn’t sound very likely. Verification and irreversibility are even more difficult in a way.
Denuclearization to us, and I think to Japan, means certainly no nuclear weapons, but does it mean no nuclear power? We haven’t determined. So there’s a long way to go, in my view, before we determine what actually comes out of this process.
Q: What levels of concessions is Washington ready to give Pyongyang?
A: North Korea wants concession out of Washington first. They usually say actions for actions, but then they talk about synchronous actions or simultaneous actions.
What the Trump administration is willing to guarantee, I think, is security, that is freedom from attack, as long as there’s no attack from the North. But it’s hard to know how to guarantee regime survival when we don’t have a good idea of how hated the regime may be.
You can guarantee nonaggression if there’s no aggression from the North, but you can’t guarantee the survival of the regime because that rests with people of North Korea.
Pyongyang aims at U.S. forces
Q: Will the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula be on the agenda in the future?
A: Probably not in the first few meetings, but eventually I do believe this is a North Korean aim. Right now, the South Koreans themselves have said, “It’s not on the table; the U.S. presence in Korea will remain.” That’s good because it relieves the pressure on Japan.
But I think my personal view is ultimately North Korea would like to, certainly eliminate the troops from South Korea. North Korea is certainly aware of the historical significance of U.S. forces here in Japan during the Korean War of 1950-1953.
Q: What’s the prospect of the Japanese abductees issue?
A: I think it is a good thing that President Trump has agreed to raise the question of Japanese abductees. I hope that he’s not too quick to accept a North Korean version.
The only people who can determine whether the abductee issue is resolved are the families of the abductees, not Kim Jong Un.
I think Abe-sori [Prime Minister Abe] has moved heaven and earth to try to make sure Mr. Trump understands the importance of this issue. I have no doubt that Mr. Abe has done everything he humanly can. I also know that a member of the [U.S.] national security council staff, Mr. [Matt] Pottinger, met with the families of the abductees. He too will have put through to [national security adviser] Mr. [John] Bolton, and hopefully from Mr. Bolton to the president, again the importance of this issue.
Q: Does South Korea want Japan to raise the abduction issue at this moment?
A: I don’t have any special knowledge, but I have a fear that [President] Xi Jinping in China and [South Korean President] Moon Jae In, they both want a reduction of tensions on the peninsula so much that it’s liable to have them form an axis that might somehow work against Japan’s interests. We in the United States have to be very alert to this.
Trump may want to focus on Iran
Q: Can you make sense of Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal?
A: I can make sense of it, but I don’t agree with it. I think the Iran nuclear deal should have been allowed to stand.
But the [U.S. President Barack] Obama administration made a big error by not, having achieved that nuclear deal, turning right around and being very critical of Iran for her malignant activities in the Middle East. What happened, for the United States, ever since the hostage crisis [at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran] in 1979, Iran has been what we refer to as the third rail — very unpopular, no good can come of it, they are not friends of ours, they never will be, that kind of thinking. And it’s never been counteracted.
In fact, what we’ve seen is activities from Iran — the [U.S.] Marine [Corps barrack] bombing in 1983 in Beirut, the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut [in the same year], [the 1996 bombing at] Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. I think that was the backdrop for the reason the Trump administration got away from it.
I disagree with walking away from the nuclear deal, but I do very much agree the Iranians bear a heavy responsibility for what’s going on in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
I actually think that — and I’m not sure about this — but I think that the Trump administration would prefer to get rid of the problem of North Korea, either resolve it or park it somewhere, so they can concentrate on the question of Iran. But there’s no question that there is a relationship between Iran and North Korea, and there’s a relationship between Syria and North Korea. So to some extent, what happens in North Korea has an effect on Syria and has an effect on Iran.
Q: What’s your take on the Obama administration’s strategic patience with Pyongyang?
A: The first four years of Mr. Obama were quite good. The second four years were not. It was not only strategic patience. It was also a statement about leading from behind. The combination of the two was seen as a formula for inaction.
Q: Can we give credit to the Trump administration for moving the North Korea issues forward?
A: I’ve never heard anybody talking about the Trump administration and using the word strategic in the same sentence.
If you want to not define action, yes, you can give the Trump administration credit for action. But there’s also a certain amount of inaction. We’re still involved in Afghanistan; Mr. Trump said he wanted to get out of that. We’re still involved in Syria; he wanted to get out of that. He wanted to get out of Iraq; we’re still involved in that. Mr. Trump did the minimum possible in Syria, on two occasions. So I don’t know if it’s time yet to give them credit.
I do give them credit for speaking in strong terms to Kim Jong Un; I think that helped bring Kim Jong Un to the bargaining table. I do give Mr. Trump credit for not interfering in the recovery of our economy, which had started under Mr. Obama. But in foreign policy terms, it’s hard for me to think where the Trump administration should get credit.
Q: How you see the global leadership of the United States under President Trump?
A: I don’t think the question of whether “America First” means “America alone” has been answered yet by the Trump administration. Every day that goes by where we seem to neglect our allies and friends, it becomes clearer that Mr. Trump is at heart an isolationist. I’m not ready to say that yet. He came to [the annual summit of the] APEC [Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation]. Now he’s coming to Singapore to meet with Kim Jong Un.
What is clear is our president’s day, every day, starts with himself in the mirror. That’s the most important thing he sees every day.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa and Yomiuri Shimbun Deputy International News Editor Koya Ozeki.
■ Richard Armitage / Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
Armitage graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 and served on a destroyer during the Vietnam War. In the administration of President Ronald Reagan, he assumed such posts as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Armitage was deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005 during the presidency of President George W. Bush.