With the Singapore summit fast approaching, leading Democratic Senators headed by Chuck Schumer went to battle against diplomacy, issuing a letter to President Trump on June 4th demanding an impossible set of preconditions for North Korean sanctions relief. In doing so, they took a page out of an old bipartisan playbook for derailing diplomatic initiatives with pariah states.
Making an Offer They Must Refuse
In the letter, the Democrats announced their resolve to oppose any sanctions relief unless (to paraphrase) North Korea agrees to 1) dismantle and eliminate all chemical and biological weapons (in addition to nukes); 2) completely cease production and enrichment of uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes and dismantle all related infrastructure; 3) eliminate all existing ballistic missiles and never test another (giving up the sovereign right to possess conventional weapons for national defense); 4) permit to surprise inspections "anywhere, anytime" to verify the absence of the above (presumably yielding access to every corner of the state, including Kim Jong-un’s bedroom); and 5) consent to these outrageous conditions unto eternity.
Every single one of these demands is hugely problematic as a precondition for sanctions relief, but taken as a whole they represent a package for completely robbing North Korea of its sovereignty. No independent nation would agree to these demands, particularly one that is legitimately paranoid about being subject to US regime change. The preconditions in the letter are, therefore, none other than a blatant attempt to kill this peace process before substantial progress is made.
And even if a potential agreement with North Korea doesn’t come in the form of a treaty to be ratified by the Senate, Schumer has indicated what will most likely be the approach taken by the Democrats in Congress, who have the ability to block any deal and obstruct sanctions removal.
Anti-diplomacy 101: How to Destroy a Nuclear Deal, Before or After the Agreement
Schumer is utilizing a playbook that has been fine-tuned over the last two decades. It is centered on insisting that sanctions relief (the a priori condition used to destroy the pariah state’s economy and civil society) must hinge upon concessions totally outside the initial scope of the diplomatic endeavor. Often these demands might seem agreeable in a vacuum – wouldn’t the world be a better place without biological weapons? – but turn out to be completely unacceptable when considered in practical terms.
After this poisonous cocktail of demands is issued, the administration in power must decide to either include them in negotiations (forcing the pariah state away from the table), or refuse to do so and be smeared for (depending on the conditions asked) being permissive of human rights abuses, tolerant of WMD proliferation, or – worst of all – weak on national security.
However, the playbook can be just as effective in the long run – even if the president rebuffs these unreasonable demands, weathers domestic political backlash, and eventually makes a deal with the pariah state (one likely centered on gradual sanctions relief for each verifiable step taken toward denuclearization). All it requires is continuing to obstruct the removal of sanctions in congress, regardless of whether the pariah state is complying with the actual deal, and insisting these unreasonable demands be inserted into the pact retroactively. The opposition party simply needs to carry on like this until the deal can be canceled outright once they get their guy in the Oval Office.
Readers not infected with the unique strain of brain rot that is American partisanship might recall that the anti-diplomacy playbook was recently employed by the Republicans to oppose Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The GOP sprang into action whenever the Iranians staged a ballistic missile test, despite these tests having nothing to do with the deal itself. Iran’s complete compliance with the pact notwithstanding, they prevented meaningful sanctions relief – even adding new sanctions on top of the old – through the remainder of Obama’s term until Trump became president and canceled the deal.
Origins of the Playbook: the GOP and the Agreed Framework
The Democrats of today are also emulating the approach used by the Republicans in the late 1990s to scuttle the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. The Agreed Framework was contingent on the North freezing its nuclear weapons program for various incentives including the construction of two light water reactors that couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons material and, crucially, the "normalization of relations" (lifting sanctions, primarily).
Several years later the reactors were never built and the GOP-dominated congress balked at lifting anything beyond the least consequential of sanctions, despite North Korea having halted their nuclear weapons program. Using the pretext that the North was selling missile technology to Pakistan and Iran (again, an accusation that had nothing to do with the conditions of the deal), they held off sanctions relief long enough for an intelligence assessment to be leaked that accused North Korea of concealing a secret underground test site potentially related to nuclear weapons. These and later allegations proved to be erroneous, but they were enough to run out the clock until George W. Bush came to office and killed the Agreed Framework. Only then did North Korea go nuclear, and not for several years.
President Moon to the Rescue
With his insidious list of demands, Schumer is communicating not only to Trump, but the North Koreans across the negotiating table. His message is clear: even if the Trump administration genuinely wants to make a fair deal, there’s zero reason for North Korean officials to anticipate it being sincerely implemented over the long term.
But the hubris of Schumer and the Democrats is such that they fail to understand the game has changed: For the first time South Korea has a president that is ready, willing, and able to push the peace process forward and prevent petty American politicians from diddling with the future of Korea for political gain.
By agreeing to meet Kim Jong-un in the DMZ a second time on May 26th – the very day after Trump unilaterally canceled the Singapore summit – South Korean President Moon proved his willingness to go against American diktats and signaled the intention and capability to be a driving force in this process. Together, the two Korean leaders also hinted at what might be considered a new playbook for peace based on relentless inter-Korean cooperation to either usher the US back to the table whenever it strays (lest it be exposed as the true adversary in the process and risk losing influence in the South) or find ways to carry on without America.
Diplomacy is a long game that requires utmost patience and the willingness to overcome hurdles that spring up along the way – especially when the machinery of a key negotiating nation runs on militarism and constant conflict (and I’m not talking about North Korea).
The Democrats’ petty, predictable use of the anti-diplomacy playbook is but one example of the challenges in this peace process with the summit impending. How this will all turn out in the long run is anyone’s guess, but at least with Moon steering the South Korean ship of state, Kim Jong-un has a negotiating partner for finding alternative routes to peace, even if the United States ultimately proves an incapable or unwilling diplomatic partner.
Stu Smallwood lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has a (useless) MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. He currently works as a Korean-English translator based out of Montreal, Canada. His writing has appeared at Antiwar.com, Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.