I wanted to briefly comment and share some perspective on yesterday’s announcement of a Kim-Trump summit this spring. I’m going to format them as a series of propositions or individual items rather than a structured argument.
1. Despite all the bad things about President Trump’s management of U.S. foreign policy, there’s almost nothing that could be worse or more perilous than the progression of events of the last six to eight months on the Korean peninsula. There’s likely no more dangerous tension point in the world for the United States than the Korean peninsula. This is better than the alternative.
2. It is critical to understand that it is very, very hard to imagine that North Korea at any time in the foreseeable future will give up its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery capacity. President Trump does not seem to realize that. Why should they? One thing that is clear in the post-Cold War world is that states with nuclear weapons do not get attacked or overthrown by force of arms by the U.S. or anyone else. Nuclear states are the “made men” of the 21st-century global order. The North Korean state leadership may be paranoid. But they do have enemies. Critically, they are the only communist state based on a Cold War-era national division which has survived the fall of the Soviet Union. And power vis a vis the outside world is a centerpiece of the Kim family’s legitimacy within North Korea. (People I listen to who really know these issues often remind me that the Kim family’s calculus is driven not by calculations about the U.S. or South Korea but with the internal logic of regime stability.)
It is equally important to understand that North Korea probably mainly already has what it wants, a robust nuclear deterrent. They have demonstrated an ability to detonate multiple nuclear warheads and they have demonstrated the ability to launch ICBMs which can likely reach the continental United States. It’s unclear to me (and I suspect unclear to the U.S.) whether North Korea can combine those two technologies to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. But I don’t think we can discount that possibility. That very real possibility creates a massive deterrent already. This is important because it means that North Korea has some freedom to suspend its nuclear and missile testing for a short time or perhaps even indefinitely. Because they already have what they want. On the deterrence front, the status quo may work for them.
What Kim has done is agree to suspend testing (something he likely feels he can do from some position of strength) and meet with the U.S. as equals with no preconditions. This is a resounding confirmation of Kim’s premise and internal argument for legitimacy and power that building a nuclear arsenal will bring North Korea respect, power, and international legitimacy. Remember a key point. The Kims have been pushing for a summit with a U.S. president for 25 years. They have wanted this forever. Did President Trump know this? Or did he think it was a confirmation of his policy and genius? I strongly suspect it’s the latter.
What all of this means is that North Korea mainly has what it wants or rather what it feels it truly needs and can bargain from a position of strength to get what it wants: end of sanctions, normalization, aid, etc. It is highly unrealistic to imagine that North Korea will ever agree to denuclearize.
3. Generally speaking, you agree to a summit like this once there’s an agreement more or less in place worked out by subordinates. The meeting is what brings it all together. Trump appears inclined to approach this like a business negotiation that he’s going to knock out of the park even though he doesn’t have much understanding of what’s being discussed. He shows every sign of getting played and we’re likely to see a lengthy process of aides trying to make the best of the fait accompli he’s created.
US commentators often say that the U.S. shouldn’t hold summits like this because it confers “legitimacy” on a bad acting state. This always sounds a bit self-flattering to me. It is probably more accurate to say that it confers status and power to treat with the global great power as an equal. That is a thing of value, certainly to North Korea. They’ve wanted it for decades.
President Trump has already stated publicly that this is a negotiation, a meeting to achieve denuclearization. No one from North Korea has said that. Trump has said that. It is highly unlikely that North Korea will ever agree to that. That sets up high odds of embarrassment and disappointment. Given that President has shown very little inclination to be briefed or take advice, the odds are even greater. So will Trump agree to things he shouldn’t? Will he feel humiliated and react belligerently? It’s a highly unpredictable encounter with an inexperienced and petulant President who will reject almost all counsel. It sounds like North Korea has gotten a really big thing in exchange for very little and has no real incentive to do more than meet, bask, say generic things and not agree to anything. Trump looks like he’s getting played big time. I suspect we will learn that he didn’t consult with any advisors before agreeing to meet.
What does this all mean? As Churchill said, jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war. We have been on an extremely dangerous trajectory. There are no good solutions. There are probably no realistic paths to North Korea ceasing to be a nuclear power. But you could perhaps find agreements to limit the scope and reach of the nuclear and missile programs in place (perhaps even scale it back) with some mix of normalization and aid. But we start with an opening gambit in which Trump seems to be stumbling into something of a trap and being guided by his self-importance and vanity rather than any realistic appraisal of the situation.
Despite it being better than the alternative it’s starting in the worst way.