What should we make of Kim Jong Un’s promises in advance of a proposed meeting with President Trump, including his promise to give up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal if the U.S. promises not to invade? I think Walter Russel Mead answers the question correctly when he describes them as “a repackaged version of virtually every concession North Korea has ever proposed.”
What should we make of Kim’s historic meeting with the president of South Korea in South Korean territory? I think we should regard it as a clever, and likely successful, attempt to put the U.S. in a box: Either buy into to the notion that Kim is serious about giving up nukes and offer him concessions for saying he’ll do so, or alienate our ally and fulfill Kim’s dream of creating a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.
Would Kim really “denuclearize” his country in exchange for our promise not to invade? Does Kim look like Barack Obama?
The regime needs its nuclear weapons to survive, which has always been the primary objective of Kim and his predecessors from the family dynasty. Thus, it’s nearly impossible to believe he would imitate non-survivors Muammar Gaddafi and (it seems) Saddam Hussein by ending his nuclear program.
Why, then, is Kim talking about denuclearization? Probably for reasons similar to the ones that motivated him to talk about it in the past. Some combination of the hope of winning concessions from the U.S. and our allies and pressure from the Chinese. China’s interest is in calming U.S. fears and the fears of China’s neighbors who, if they become too fearful, will build their own nukes.
In addition, as noted, there’s the possibility of driving a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. — a boon for both North Korea and China. South Korea is now run by a left leaning president. Moreover, the South Koreans, understandably, are tired of living under the threat of nuclear attack. In these ways, South Korea can be compared to Europe in the early 1980s, the time of the nuclear freeze movement.
South Korea’s wishful thinking is reflected in this report from the New York Times:
South Korean officials argue that Mr. Kim is sincere in trading his nuclear weapons for a promise to end hostilities and get Washington’s help to improve his country’s economy.
North Korea’s promise to invite outsiders to Punggye-ri reflected “Mr. Kim’s determination to actively and pre-emptively deal with the process of verifying denuclearization,” Mr. Yoon [a South Korean government spokesman] said.
Under these circumstances, President Trump has no good alternative to talking to Kim. In addition, talking to Kim fulfills Trump’s desire to do big things on the world stage, and to receive credit (including, perhaps, that Nobel Peace Prize people are starting to talk about).
My hope is that Trump’s model here is President Reagan, who never won the Peace Prize, not President Obama, who did.