by Tony Wyman
If you believe the White House – we are on the verge of a historic turn-around in American-North Korean relations, thanks to President Donald Trump‘s “bold” and “unprecedented” offer to meet directly with the communist regime’s dictator.
But most seasoned observers call Mr. Trump’s invite to meet with Kim Jong-Un, less complimentary things. Nicholas Kristof, of The New York Times, said:
“President Trump’s decision to meet Kim Jong-un strikes me as a dangerous gamble and a bad idea. I’m afraid that North Korea may be playing Trump, and that in turn Trump may be playing us.”
Playing us is, indeed, likely what the North Koreans are doing. North Korea’s president, Kim Jong Un, has, for years, attempted to get a meeting with the American president, making disingenuous offers of peace and disarmament as an inducement.
More politically astute presidents have wisely refused such a meeting, leaving discussions to experienced diplomats skilled in negotiating with people like the North Koreans . President Trump’s new national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton, himself has dismissed President Kim’s previous olive branches as little more than an attempt to divert western attention away from his nuclear program long enough to make gains in developing long-range ballistic missiles.
“The only thing North Korea is serious about,” he said on Fox News two months ago, “is getting deliverable nuclear weapons. And by all accounts, they are very close to achieving an objective they’ve been after for 25 years. So, why do they want to talk now? To divert our attention, to get us enmeshed yet again in negotiations, to get across that finish line. Look, we’ve talked with North Korea, on and off, directly and indirectly, for 25 years. We have failed, obviously, to stop the program. There is no reason to think, that with them a few yards short of the finish line, in year 26 they are suddenly going to get serious.”
Ambassador Bolton warned the North Koreans that he was unwilling to allow negotiations between the U.S. and Pyongyang to go on for “months and months,” stating that talks should be “straightforward,” instead, getting to the point about what ambitions President Kim has for his nuclear program and for the Korean Peninsula, as a whole.
“Is North Korea going to give up its nuclear weapons, how are we going to do it, how are we going to take it out of the country? Not a theoretical discussion about these issues, but very concretely how they are going denuclearise North Korea. The sooner we get to it and cut to the chase, the better,” Mr. Bolton was quoted as saying by the British newspaper, The Telegraph.
But given Mr. Bolton’s earlier skepticism about the seriousness of the North Korean regime when it comes to halting their nuclear programs “…a few yards short of the finish line,” why would the White House decide that now is the time to negotiate with Mr. Kim?
North Korea recently gave up its unrealistic demand that the United States withdraw its troops from South Korea before they would enter into talks about denuclearization, something that the Trump Administration might see as a victory.
However – the White House might actually be playing right into President Kim’s hands.
Known for playing a very weak diplomatic hand with extraordinary skill, Mr. Kim has accomplished something that his father, the previous dictator of North Korea, never managed to do – gaining the legitimacy that comes with meeting directly with the American president and top members of his administration.
Increasing North Korea’s Prestige
This seems to be the real goal of President Kim’s willingness to meet directly with President Trump, to be taken seriously as a legitimate national leader, something that a direct meeting with an American president offers.
Should the meeting go as Mr. Kim likely wants it to go, with peace between his country and South Korea, guaranteed by American commitments, without having to give up his nuclear arsenal, it would be hard to deprive him of a seat at the table of nuclear powers and even harder to ignore the increase in national prestige such a position would afford North Korea.
Should a deal be reached between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim without denuclearization, America will be seen as having capitulated to the North Koreans on the most important point of the negotiations.
Considering that North Korea’s only negotiating leverage comes from having a nuclear arsenal, there is no incentive for them to give it up.
They, like the rest of the rogue nations of the world, saw what happened to Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi after he agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program.
NATO, emboldened by the knowledge Mr. Qaddafi gave up his young nuclear program eight years prior, set up a No-Fly zone over his country in support of the rebels who eventually toppled the government and summarily executed its leader. As the Christian Science Monitor put it:
“Of all the lessons to draw from the ignoble end to Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal regime in Libya, the one about nuclear weapons proliferation is probably not the first tutorial that comes to mind. But you can believe it is not lost on countries that feel vulnerable. And for the sake of global security, the international community must consider what it’s like to be in their shoes.”
No full-fledged nuclear state, other than South Africa, has ever voluntarily abandoned their program (Libya’s nuclear program was in its infancy when President Qaddafi abandoned it) and there is little reason to believe the North Koreans will be the second.
Although they have stated they have no reason to keep a nuclear arsenal if “the military threat to North Korea is resolved,” it is hard to imagine a path that leads to such a resolution. What assurances would the North need before it viewed “the military threat” to their regime was no longer a concern? And how could such a negotiation take place within a timeline brief enough to allay National Security Adviser Bolton’s concerns the North Koreans are using talks to distract western attention from their developing nuclear weapons program?
Dictators Don’t Give Up Nukes
As we have seen in Syria recently, dictators often lie and dissemble when it comes to their true weapons capabilities. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, with Russia assurances, attested that he had given up all of his chemical weapons and ability to produce more. As dozens of dead children and their families can attest, that promise was a lie.
For the world to be satisfied that North Korea has, truly, given up their nuclear weapons program will require a level of access to their most secret military and industrial sites that the country has never granted before. Why would they agree to do so now?
It is likely the North Korean leader has already achieved his goal in this round of negotiations – the increase in prestige such a meeting affords him. Considering Mr. Trump’s capriciousness, Mr. Kim likely believes, with detailed preparation and the discipline to stick to the tactics he and his father used for more than two decades to successfully hold the West at bay while North Korea developed a successful nuclear program, he can make even more progress when he sits across the table from the American president.
But, if the meetings fail to produce results or result in one side leaving discussions in anger, what happens next? Bolton gives this prediction:
“If Kim Jong Un comes in and says, ‘You know, I’ve seen the error of my ways. I’m gonna renounce my leadership of North Korea and go live in a villa on the seashore of China for the rest of my life and the regime can get on without me,’ that would be historic, but unlikely.”
If that scenario is the administration’s objective, by their own admission, they are going to be badly disappointed. If their objective is denuclearization, they first have to define, along with both South and North Korea, what that means.
The terms of success
If negotiations don’t result in the end of North Korea’s nuclear program, but end their long-range nuclear program, sparing the United States from their weapon’s range, but leaving South Korea still vulnerable, would that be a deal the U.S. is willing to make? The Japanese government has already signaled its unwillingness to participate in or to support any deal that leaves Kim with short to medium range capabilities.
If denuclearization means the end of a weapons program, but allows the development of an energy program, is that acceptable to all sides? If denuclearization means the North must, over a period of time, reduce their arsenal of weapons to zero in return for specific inducements from the West, what assurances will the West have, ones that are enforceable and that certify that North Korea will live up to their end of the bargain?
Considering how impetuously President Trump jumped at the opportunity to meet with President Kim, doing so without consulting aides experienced in dealing with North Korea, it is a concern that he will disregard the counsel of his diplomats and agree to something short of American objectives in exchange for a deal.
It is also a concern that nothing will come of the discussions and President Trump will react in anger, increasing the tensions that already exist on the peninsula.
Perhaps such fears are overblown and the result of talks will be positive. If nothing else, the Koreans on both sides of the demarcation line have a period of time where both sides will look at each other over a table, rather than over land covered in mines and barbed wire.