Earlier this week, President Trump seemed to suggest that, in the absence of a nuclear deal with the U.S., Kim Jong Un’s regime might suffer the same fate as the Qaddafi regime in Libya did. Mike Pence then made this threat explicit, saying: “As the president made clear, this will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
In response, North Korea’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Choe Son Hui, called Pence “a political dummy” and suggested that Pence’s statement placed the the planned summit between Trump and Kim in jeopardy. She concluded that it is up to the United States to decide whether it wants to “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
Choe Son Hui was previously the regime’s top official in charge of relations with the United States. The daughter of a former premier, she is also thought to have direct access to Kim. Her latest statement should, I think, be viewed as the regime’s.
Pence is no politically dummy, but one can question the wisdom of talking publicly about the Libyan model in connection with North Korea. In the case of Libya, Qaddafi denuclearized and was overthrown. Thus, Pence citing Libya for the proposition that Kim will be overthrown if does not denuclearize is not likely to impress the North Koreans. They will have drawn the opposite lesson from Libya, and with good reason.
There’s another problem with the analogy, one noted by the Vice Minister. Libya’s nuclear program never reached the stage where it could attack the U.S. or inflict vast damage on our allies. As the Vice Minister says, Libya “had simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them.”
North Korea’s well-developed nuclear weapons program puts it a vastly stronger position than Libya occupied. And the North Koreans understand that its nukes are the best protection from Libya style regime change.
Why then are Trump and Pence talking about Libya? Probably because they want to make it clear in advance of any summit that the U.S. will demand denuclearization. From the Kim regime’s perspective, there are no good arguments in favor of North Korea denuclearizing, so the administration picked a bad one — Libya.
The North Korean Vice Minister’s other statement — that America’s choices are to encounter North Korea in the meeting or during a nuclear showdown — is nonsense. Not meeting with North Korea wouldn’t necessarily mean war. There’s another, more likely, outcome — no nuclear showdown occurs because such a showdown is in neither side’s interest. Instead, something like the status quo continues in effect.
In sum, my view is that (1) North Korea isn’t going to denuclearize, (2) the U.S. shouldn’t accept any deal that does not include denuclearization, and (3) cancelling the summit would not lead to war.
Nonetheless, it might well be in America’s interest for Trump to meet with Kim. Why? Because now that North Korea apparently has (or soon will have) the ability to strike portions of the U.S., we’re probably heading into a Cold War style deterrence model with the regime. The objection to applying this model to North Korea has always been that the Kims are irrational, and deterrence is a bad strategy if the people you’re intending to deter aren’t rational.
If Trump meets with Kim, he should be able to determine whether Kim is (as I suspect) a rational actor capable of being deterred or an irrational actor for whom the deterrence model is too risky to embrace. I should add, however, that Secretary of State Pompeo has already met with Kim and, presumably, sized him up. Thus, Trump meeting Kim isn’t necessary for a sizing up, but it would likely be desirable.
The better sense Trump has of Kim, the better off we are. It’s dangerous to have a mysterious figure as a nuclear adversary.