‘Catastrophic Failure’: How Trump’s North Korea Deal Could Turn Into a Win for the Hawks

A deal built around trust more than specifics presents opportunities for critics. That’s especially true for those wanting confrontation.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

On its face, President Donald Trump’s preliminary nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea makes military conflict less likely. But beneath the surface, foreign policy hawks appear to be steeling for a conflict in the event Pyongyang deviates from the agreement.

“If Kim Jong-un throws away this opportunity, it will mean the military destruction of his country and his death,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) bluntly told reporters on Tuesday.

That Reed and others would raise the specter of future confrontation with such bravado may have seemed off-key, considering the accolades that Trump has sought for himself—with the aid of over-the-top plaudits from his staff and supporters—as a peacemaker deserving of a Nobel. But it reflected a sense within certain foreign policy circles that the deal struck by Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore was amorphous at best—prone to misinterpretation and even exploitation.

It’s a perception that some of Trump’s own hawkish advisers share. A couple months before he was tapped to be Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton offered some backhanded praise of the summit, then in its planning stages. The meeting would not dissuade North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons, Bolton predicted. But it might facilitate the course of action that he considered all but inevitable: a military confrontation with the North Korean regime.

Bolton, who supports wholesale regime change in Pyongyang, hoped the summit would be “a way to foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want.”

Under the agreement reached on Monday, North Korea agreed to the full nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for a normalization of relations with the U.S. But whether North Korea will hold up its end of the bargain is one, major, lingering question. Another is whether the president can keep a domestic coalition together in support of the deal as well.

“The best you can say for this deal is Trump did a freeze-for-freeze. They’re not going to test any missiles and we’re not going to hold military exercises with South Korea,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former counsel to the George W. Bush White House, Justice Department, House intelligence committee, and Senate foreign relations committee. “That’s strange because he’s been critical, as have Republicans, of the freeze-for-freeze approach under Clinton and Obama. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile in over six months—why give them something now?”

Within 24 hours of the summit, there was already confusion about the contours of the deal itself. The U.S. initially announced that it would suspend military exercises in South Korea as a show of good faith. But in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence appeared to differentiate between “war games”—or full-scale simulations of military action—from training exercises conducted in conjunction with the South Korean military.

It’s not clear whether Pyongyang recognizes that distinction—and might use any joint military exercises, such as the type Pence reportedly said would continue, as a pretext to claim the U.S. is pre-emptively violating the agreement. That, in turn, could open the door to the more aggressive posture favored by Bolton and other foreign policy hawks in the administration and Congress. Asked whether North Korean “cheating” would necessarily result in military conflict, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, “I think so. If it doesn’t mean that, we’ll never get a deal.”

Such a scenario has a name. Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, deemed it “catastrophic failure” in which “diplomacy judged to have failed and people embrace the alternative.” Though Haass told The Daily Beast that he was more fearful of other outcomes—mainly the Trump administration framing marginal North Korea concessions as massive diplomatic victories—other foreign policy observers weren’t as sanguine about the long game.

“If it turns out that North Korea is blatantly lying to Trump, it would not shock me if you see Trump swing back to Bolton’s direction,” said Dan Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University.

For now, both military officials and members of Congress seemed inclined to watch the fallout from the summit and make determinations later. At the Pentagon, officials greeted the Singapore statement with something of a resigned shrug.

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There was a large exercise with South Korea that was planned for August that the Pentagon is now “hitting the brakes” on as they wait for more details from the aftermath of the Trump summit, one U.S. official said, speaking anonymously to discuss the tea-leaf reading underway at the Defense Department. “Watchers expected some concessions,” the official said, as Trump had already scaled back the last round of joint exercises with South Korea in the run-up to the Singapore summit.

Meanwhile, the Republican chairman of the House armed services committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, balanced “hope” for a North Korean complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) with skepticism that Pyongyang would keep a vague denuclearization pledge it has repeatedly violated over nearly 30 years.

“The key going forward will be North Korea’s actions, not their promises, in taking concrete, transparent steps toward that goal,” Thornberry said in a statement. “In the meantime, it is essential to maintain economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and above all to continue strengthening our military capability to defend ourselves and our allies.”

Thomas Countryman, who until last year was a senior State Department arms-control official, noted that any freeze on military drills with South Korea “can easily be reversed by the U.S. if progress by North Korea is inadequate.” More difficult will be the highly technical and detailed diplomatic process to follow that tests the scope of North Korean disarmament—a process that “will take years to complete,” he said.

“First, North Korea needs to make a complete declaration of its nuclear arsenal, its facilities, its nuclear material inventory. Second, we have to begin the process of involving both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Comprehensive Test Ban [Treaty] Organization in preparing to verify the declaration and beginning the dismantlement process,” Countryman said.

All this arduous work, reminiscent of past failed rounds of nuclear diplomacy, is compounded by the open secret that U.S. intelligence has only the most minimal sense of the scale and location of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. It has been nearly 16 years since North Korea expelled international arms inspectors, and since then became a nuclear power, holding its sixth bomb test in September. Two months later, it tested a Hwasong-15 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile.

The forthcoming “years” of diplomacy Countryman mentioned provides Pyongyang ample opportunity to slow-walk, violate, or claim misimpression of the terms reached in Singapore. And those opportunities exist for U.S. hawks as well.

If North Korea reneges on the deal, the John Boltons of the administration may not even need to push the president in the direction of more direct confrontation. One White House official speculated that Trump would go ballistic if Kim backtracked on or withdrew from the agreement.

“For Trump, it’ll be personal,” the official said. “Which is probably worse for Kim.”

—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier and Sam Stein