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The Singapore Sling: Pressure mounts on Trump to meet with Kim

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the ...

Posted: May 28, 2018 10:46 AM
Updated: May 28, 2018 10:46 AM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States.

Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for President Trump almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues that Trump needs to know about to make informed decisions.

Here's this week's briefing:

North Korea summit: Peer pressure

Mr. President, you will be under pressure from all sides to proceed with a summit with Kim Jong Un.

  • North Korea: The totalitarian regime will try to keep summit prospects warm because Kim probably believes he can get some economic relief, a reputational bump and a security blanket if he keeps negotiations ongoing. He thinks that if the diplomatic track is alive he can market himself as a committed, responsible negotiating partner. And while a face-to-face with Trump would help make Kim a media darling, there's a more significant benefit for him: a greater likelihood that other countries would consider lessening pressure on Pyongyang. At the same time, North Korea likely views a live negotiating track as a deterrent to a US military option. Mr. President, Kim's calculus is probably that if you think the diplomatic track could yield a positive outcome, you will be less likely to turn to military force.

  • South Korea: President Moon Jae-in will do whatever it takes, including literally embracing Kim, to keep negotiations going because he assesses that both South Korea's security and his own job security are on the line. Moon has been a longtime proponent of a diplomatic approach, in no small part because a military strike would plausibly result in North Korean counterstrikes against South Korea. This would put millions of lives at risk. Moon may have oversold North Korea's willingness to negotiate in good faith to delay such action, in fact. His domestic approval ratings got a massive boost since the "diplomatic breakthrough" was announced in March and he met Kim at the demilitarized zone for the first time. President Trump, if Moon fails to pull a rabbit out of a hat and get you and Kim to meet face to face, he will look played by Kim and/or abandoned by you, either of which will mean a blow to his political standing and make a US military strike on the Korean peninsula look more likely.

  • Russia: Vladimir Putin has historically picked sides, and it's not ours, it's all Kim's. Putin has accused the US of provoking North Korea on more than one occasion. And President Trump, he's likely to blame you -- not the man with the illegal nukes -- if the negotiations do in fact die. But remember -- whichever way this goes, it's a win for Moscow. If you are unsuccessful in getting Kim to denuclearize, or if it looks like Kim stood you up, you help Putin achieve his goal of undermining US credibility. If talks progress and the North skirts a military strike, that would also skirt the risk of the US sending more troops to the region or replacing Kim with a pro-American leader. That's also a positive outcome because Putin doesn't want us anywhere closer to Moscow. Although Putin is sending his foreign minister to North Korea this week, he is keeping relatively quiet publicly because he knows this all works in his favor.

  • China: Like Russia, China has historically urged diplomacy with North Korea. A US military strike would upset the regional status quo that they enjoy and could result in refugees spilling into China and more US troops in the region. President Trump, if there is a perception that you torpedoed negotiations, then President Xi Jinping will manipulate that narrative and use it to bring US allies like South Korea closer to him and further from you. So China will support negotiations on at least a slow boil, but they'll want something for it. We know that lifting US penalties against telecommunications company ZTE has been a core focus for Xi, and in exchange for using their patronage of Kim Jong Un to urge him to play ball, they'll want more. Quid pro quos are on the menu.

Trade policy: Rough road ahead

Mr. President, countries are reacting unanimously against your decision to launch an investigation into whether imports of vehicles "threaten to impair" US national security. They are likely to retaliate if this investigation results in penalties similar to the tariffs you imposed on steel and aluminum imports.

This investigation does further isolate us from our allies who represent a significant amount of our automobile trade, including NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the investigation was based on flimsy logic and was linked to your NAFTA renegotiation strategy), along with Japan, Germany and South Korea. South Korean officials already said they would "have to respond" to any US tariffs, and after the previous round of steel and aluminum tariffs, the EU almost immediately threatened retaliatory trade measures. If this proceeds, we can expect a similar reaction.

Allies, including the EU and Japan, said the move would be against World Trade Organization rules, and a "rival power" -- China -- took your announcement as an opportunity to (hypocritically) urge respect for their multilateral trading system (China is not exactly a poster child for respecting the WTO or international rules). So we can expect our allies and our economic competitors to be aligned (and potentially coordinating) on a response to the investigation, including taking us to the WTO or, following our lead, using "national security" concerns to close their own borders to our exports.

Taiwan: Increasingly dire straits

China is ramping up its campaign against Taiwan. We assess that as President Xi feels even stronger at home, in the region, and on the global stage, he will use everything in his tool kit against Taiwan. As part of its international pressure campaign against Taiwan, China has steadily destroyed Taiwan's diplomatic relationships.

Last week, Burkina Faso became the latest country to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which now has only 17 diplomatic relationships left. China is also leveraging its economic clout and pressuring companies like Gap Inc. and Delta Air Lines to avoid recognizing Taiwan as its own country or risk losing business in China. China knows that the United States is committed to Taiwan's defense, by law, so it will likely continue to undermine Taiwan's security and diplomatic standing and see how far they can push the envelope before provoking any kind of substantive response from you.

Afghanistan: Threat assessment

Taliban attacks continued there last week and we anticipate a further uptick in violence, particularly after the Taliban issued a warning that they're planning attacks on government, police and intelligence facilities in Kabul and asked civilians to stay away. Despite our public statements last year that some Taliban groups expressed an interest in talking, we've seen no meaningful indication recently that the Taliban is open to substantive negotiations. We have referenced the Taliban as a "weakened enemy" recently while continuing operations against them, but they maintain the ability to launch high-profile attacks -- including in the increasing swathes of territory controlled by insurgents.

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