Asia (i.e., North Korea) update: March 9 2018


At least 30 people were killed on Friday in a number of attacks around Afghanistan. In the largest, at least 10 people were killed and at least 20 more injured when a suicide bomber targeted a Hazara communal ceremony in Kabul. Overnight, the Taliban struck twice in Takhar province, killing 10 police officers in one attack and another 8 in the other. At least six other members of the Afghan security forces were also killed in other incidents.

The Kabul bombing, which was claimed by ISIS but is being attributed to the Haqqani Network by Afghan authorities, kicked off an impromptu protest by a group of Hazaras in the capital. Hazaras are a frequently oppressed minority to begin with, but their plight has been compounded by the war because, since they are predominantly Shiʿa, they are frequent targets for ISIS.


This week’s double US blow against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP)–a drone bombed a TTP camp on the Afghan side of the border, and the State Department then put bounties on the heads of three TTP-connected figures–may represent an olive branch from Washington to Islamabad. But it’s going to take more than that to save the US-Pakistan relationship. The Pakistanis could help a bit by addressing their country’s ridiculous blasphemy law, which has fueled extremism and contributed to the deterioration in Pakistan’s standing in Washington.


Those extra security forces deployed by the Sri Lankan government to Kandy on Thursday seem to have done the trick–despite fears that Muslims might be targeted for more violence on Friday during communal prayers, things seem to have remained relatively quiet.


Monsoon season begins in April, and around 100,000 Rohingya refugees are estimated to be at severe risk from flooding and landslides in their camps in southern Bangladesh. The United Nations and several partner organizations are working to expand the most at-risk camp to allow residents to relocate away from the real danger areas, but the Bangladesh government continues to work on its plan to relocate at least 100,000 refugees to a new camp on an island in the Bay of Bengal. That island floods routinely, so some kind of protection needs to be constructed before it’s suitable for habitation.


Myanmar soldiers have reportedly executed two civilians in Kachin State. The two men, both in a refugee camp due to the ongoing fighting between the Myanmar military and Kachin separatists, were last seen in the custody of Myanmar soldiers on January 31, and their bodies recently turned up in a shallow grave.


Obviously there are plenty of lingering questions about the just announced Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit that may (and I stress may, see below) take place as soon as May. Most of them, as I noted yesterday, would be answered if this were a more normal negotiating process that involved a series of lower-level engagements building up to the big meeting between the two leaders, but since we’re apparently starting with the big meeting a lot of things are going to remain very much up in the air. Even the site of the summit is in question–will Trump really do Kim a solid by meeting with him in Pyongyang, or will he insist on a third party site like South Korea?

The Trump administration still seems to be figuring out exactly what its negotiating position will be, something that it probably should have done before things got this far. Rex Tillerson–who is supposed to be Trump’s chief diplomat–said on Thursday, hours before the announcement that Trump would meet Kim, that “we’re a long way from negotiations.” Oops. On Friday he tried to draw an absurd distinction between “negotiations” and “talks” to explain how we could both be a “long way from negotiations” but looking at a Trump-Kim meeting in a matter of weeks. So there’s no question that Trump has once again caught his entire staff totally off guard.

One thing that’s being missed in the frantic outpouring of takes about his potential meeting is that, except for the fact that Trump accepted a face to face meeting with Kim, none of this is really outside the norm when it comes to the North Korea-US relationship. This is a cycle that has been repeated again and again for a couple of decades now–North Korea tests something or does something to provoke the US, the US responds with sanctions or a show of force, and North Korea asks for talks. Maybe not for talks at this high a level, but talks nonetheless. Sometimes the US agrees to talk, sometimes it doesn’t, but where we’re really in uncharted territory is the idea of putting Trump and Kim in a room together.

Assuming it does happen, this meeting will give Kim legitimacy, there’s no question about that. Which is fine, who cares really, but it can’t just be about letting Kim show off. There has to be some tangible progress in reducing tensions between North Korea and the US, or else the meeting could actually increase those tensions. Previous US presidents have recognized that, to some extent, just getting a meeting like this is North Korea’s goal, and have resisted meeting the Kims without getting some concessions before the meeting. The Trump administration (scrambling, remember) suddenly announced on Friday that it’s going to insist on “concrete actions” from North Korea before it really agrees to the talks. This raises the possibility that the talks won’t happen at all, though to back out now would risk looking as though Trump feels like he screwed up and wants a do-over.

One thing to consider is that those previous presidents failed at making any progress toward peace with North Korea, so maybe their example isn’t worth following. Or maybe it is! Because, again, there is the potential for this summit to actually make things worse. Assuming it happens. And if it doesn’t happen now, after all of this, that will definitely make things worse. Also, those past presidents actually had a fully-staffed State Department and an array of Asia-focused diplomats on whom to draw for ideas/experience/advice/etc. This administration most definitely does not, which helps to explain why its handling of this whole situation has been such a mess.

University of Minnesota professor Mark S. Bell thinks that, despite North Korean rhetoric, denuclearization remains a very long shot. But he argues that there are other objectives the US could pursue: capping the size of North Korea’s nuclear program, securing restrictions on Pyongyang’s export of nuclear technologies, and opening deconfliction channels with North Korea to reduce the potential for misunderstandings to escalate to war. The question is whether Trump will be willing to adjust his focus to these secondary goals if it becomes clear that Kim won’t denuclearize, or if he’s going to get mad and walk away from the table.

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