The pros and cons of talking with Kim Jong Un

So President Trump’s bellicosity towards North Korea hasn’t led to nuclear war, after all. Instead, from all that appears, it has led to the negotiating table and face-to-face talks between the president and Kim Jong Un.

But is that a good place for the U.S. to be? And will it lead to a denuclearized North Korea?

Let’s keep in mind that North Korea has benefited significantly from past talks with the U.S. The negotiating table has always been a good place for the North Koreans to be. And it will be an even better place this time in at least this sense — the Dear Leader will be seated with the U.S. President as an equal partner in the talks.

North Korea’s consistent and successful strategy has been to advance its nuclear program, negotiate concessions in exchange for promises, break the promises or find loopholes in them, and advance its nuclear program some more. Now, that, apparently, it has the ability to strike parts of the U.S., the North Koreans may be willing to take a timeout from further testing in exchange for economic concessions. But it seems highly unlikely that it will denuclearize and rather unlikely that it won’t cheat on portions of what it agrees to.

So the answer to my second question — will negotiations lead to a denuclearized North Korea — is, almost surely, no.

That doesn’t mean the negotiating table is a bad place for the U.S. to be. One advantage of being there is that it gives President Trump a chance to size up (no pun intended) our adversary, the guy he likes to call Little Rocket Man. Another is that we placate our South Korean allies who, understandably, want to see the U.S. go the extra mile here. There’s also a China angle, but I’m not smart enough to figure that one out.

The potential disadvantage lies, of course, in what we may agree to do. If we agree to boost the North Korean economy, either with aid or simply by lifting sanctions, the effect may be the prolongation of the regime. What we likely get in exchange, no further advancement of the nuclear program for now (assuming North Korea keeps its promises) isn’t much of a concession if North Korea can already strike the U.S.

Why would such a deal be better than the Iran deal? Given that North Korea is further along than Iran on the nuclear front, I’m not sure it would even be as good.

One more angle occurs to me. I’ve never thought that North Korea would launch a nuclear first strike. The Cold War era deterrence model fits well here.

I’ve long been concerned, however, about the North Koreans providing nuclear technology to those who might well use it against us or our friends. If we can negotiate arrangements that effectively address this prospect, we will have gained something important.

But this part of a potential deal seems like the most difficult aspect to verify and enforce.