Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
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 the President almost daily.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Before high profile meetings, the intelligence community often provides the President with a strategic assessment of the state of play and what to expect when engaging with a foreign counterpart.
President Donald Trump may have disregarded these assessments in the past and sided with foreign leaders over US intelligence experts – but if he does choose to read key analytic assessments ahead of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he could digest some analysis that would help him advance US national security objectives.
While Trump may want to continue touting the lack of North Korean nuclear tests as a sign of a diminished threat, the North Korean nuclear threat is arguably worse today than when he took office. He has discounted the US intelligence community’s assessment that Kim won’t denuclearize so easily because the North Korean leader considers his weapons of mass destruction critical to regime survival.
North Korea may not have conducted a nuclear or missile test in more than a year, but according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, it has not frozen its development and production of nuclear weapons either. The short-term risk may be diminished because Kim is focused on behaving well enough to get concessions from the US. But North Korea’s continued stockpiling and dispersal of nuclear weapons, according to a confidential UN report – coupled with its likely perception that Trump is turning a blind eye to certain activities to safeguard his self-declared progress with Kim – means that the regime still poses a big threat to the US and its allies.
The President’s perceived inability to honestly describe the threat hinders any negotiations underway. Candidly speaking with Kim about the threat he continues to pose may be the first step in any productive conversation focused on actual denuclearization.
Because of this reality, getting Kim to agree to at least a nuclear freeze in Hanoi – in exchange for a commensurate US concession like a freeze on more sanctions – would help safeguard US national security.
Pretty little liar
Undercutting the US intelligence community’s assessment that Kim is unlikely to denuclearize, the White House has cited Kim’s own words as proof that he means it when he says he’ll denuclearize.
This may be a strategic move aimed at making Kim feel accountable and responsible for keeping his word, but North Korean leaders haven’t shown themselves to be overly concerned with doing so in the past.
Taking Kim’s word over the US intelligence community’s is both naive and dangerous. If Kim doesn’t put any actual denuclearization steps on the table, it’s time to call him out. Actions speak louder than words, especially when the stakes are nuclear.
Expect peer pressure
With former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe alleging that Trump believed Russian President Vladimir Putin over the US intelligence community’s assessments of North Korean nuclear capabilities, it raises an important strategic issue: Trump needs to stop getting guidance from abroad.
Several world leaders, including Putin and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, are probably trying to downplay the threat from North Korea while pressuring Trump to stay engaged with Kim because of their ulterior motives, which may be inimical to US national security objectives.
Trump has relied on a shadow cabinet of foreign leaders in the past. In addition to reports he agreed to withdraw from Syria after speaking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – he’s taken a lot of direction from Moon when it comes to assessing Kim’s intentions.
Going into Hanoi, the President should understand that he’s expected to stick with negotiations in the face of peer pressure, even if denuclearization is not really on the table, and to announce landmark moves toward peace, even if Kim doesn’t deserve it. Trump’s peers are probably using any engagements they have with him to push him to declare peace on the peninsula, including perhaps an armistice agreement to end the Korean War, because it serves their interests even if it doesn’t yet serve ours.
Russia wants to maintain the status quo that keeps Kim in power and avoids the chances of a US military strike, possibly an increased US military presence in the region and a more pro-US leader rising to power in North Korea. China also wants to avoid a military confrontation. Plus, China is Kim’s most important economic partner and stands to gain financially if sanctions are lifted and trade with North Korea can resume. President Xi Jinping will continue to advocate for talks to continue, and now Vietnam has a stake in the game as it hosts the second summit. South Korea is moving ahead with intra-Korean integration projects, so Moon may also try to hand Trump rose-colored glasses so that this diplomatic foray doesn’t end.
Kim wants a third date
Trump should expect Kim to suggest a third meeting. Extending negotiations somewhere into the future buys Kim time, and time is on Kim’s side.
Trump has said he doesn’t want to rush diplomacy with North Korea. Leaving aside the fact that Trump has criticized his predecessor’s policy of “strategic patience,” every day Kim pretends to be “negotiating” means another day that he can spend making his nuclear arsenal, bigger, better and more dispersed. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has emphasized the importance of continuing with diplomacy, has stated that North Korea hasn’t frozen its nuclear program.
Put the horse before the cart
The White House has said that the President is focused on four priorities with Kim, based on the joint declaration he signed with the North Korean leader in June: transforming relations between the US and North Korea; establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula; denuclearization; and the return of killed-in-action and missing-in-action Americans from the Korean War. (Kim did return some US troop remains after the Singapore summit.) But Kim will likely push to make denuclearization the last thing he addresses – when it should instead be the basis for achieving US goals.
North Korea’s nuclear threat will continue to grow if we allow Kim to distract us with progress (real or superficial) in other areas. The President should emphasize that improving relations and establishing a permanent peace can only come after denuclearization.
Make it official
If Trump is going to meaningfully engage Kim on denuclearization, he needs to move past photo ops and love letters and establish official ways to inventory North Korean assets.
First, one way to make this happen is to get his team involved with Kim’s. Any additional time US experts can spend with their North Korean counterparts can provide valuable insights into their behavior and intentions. Trump can do this by establishing official ties between the US and North Korea, whether it’s through a diplomatic liaison office or expert level meetings on denuclearization. And, second, denuclearization isn’t rocket science – the International Atomic Energy Agency has a track record of developing, implementing and monitoring the denuclearization of various countries – so Kim and Trump should invite them in to take stock of North Korean assets.
Failing to digest the intelligence community’s assessments will likely lead to more of the same – continued North Korean nuclear proliferation, Kim’s growing acceptance on the world stage, sanctions busting, and further US concessions like suspending joint military exercises – all of which degrade US national security.