There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding the prospects for the summit scheduled to take place sometime in late May or early June between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. What will happen when two highly volatile and unpredictable, nuclear-armed leaders with no actual experience in diplomacy get in the same room with each other? Orthodox wisdom is that such summits need many weeks of meticulous preparation and the leaders must arrived thoroughly briefed. But Trump is the last person in the world who thinks he needs advice, and God knows who is advising Kim.
Yet if events of recent days are anything to go by, that anxiety is misplaced. Kim and Trump have their own unorthodox parameters for a successful summit, and it looks like both may well get what they want.
Kim, the younger man, is playing a long game. He intends to rule North Korea for many decades, like his father and grandfather before him. What he needs now are assurances he can survive this administration.
The Kim dynasty has already seen off 12 U.S. presidents, and the grandson will find a way to deal with the 13th. For Trump, about twice Kim’s age, it’s all about instant gratification. He needs to show he can succeed where his predecessors failed. To do that, he will kick the can down the road and screw his successors. Trump craves spectacle. Kim needs survival.
Kim’s announcement Friday that North Korea will suspend its nuclear and long-range missile tests is designed to give Trump what he needs. The caveat in his announcement to a meeting of the Workers’ Party leadership – that the tests are being suspended since “the weaponization of nuclear weapons has been verified” – didn’t seem to bother the U.S. president. He was quick to tweet Saturday that the suspension was “very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
For most other nuclear countries, the ability to test both atomic devices and missiles is essential for ensuring both safety and that the weapon systems actually work. For North Korea, what’s important is that they have a semi-credible threat that will make any enemy think 10 times before trying to take out its leadership.
Both the nuclear and missile tests North Korea has already carried out are sufficient for the rest of the world to believe it probably has the capabilities necessary to launch a few missiles with nuclear warheads as far as the North American continent. Some of those missiles may not make it. Others could break up mid-flight or be intercepted by missile-defense systems. But the combination of the possible threat to the United States, along with more established threats to closer nations and, of course, Pyongyang’s conventional forces that could cause devastating damage, is enough to deter anyone from messing with Kim. The suspension of tests is meaningless when, as far as Kim is concerned, North Korea doesn’t need any more tests.
Kim’s announcement follows his previous commitment last month that “it is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula.” This is another statement that was met with enthusiastic headlines, but it is no different from previous North Korean statements.
It doesn’t mean Kim is prepared to meet the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) requirement the United States and South Korea have made in the past. Similar previous commitments from North Korea have evaporated amid demands that the Americans remove all of their forces from South Korea and the discovery that North Korea continued to clandestinely develop its nuclear capabilities.
Kim hasn’t come all this way to give up his most precious asset. Now he has it, he will say all the right things that allow him to keep it and, in addition, lead to an easing of sanctions.
Trump will get his summit and the trappings of a grand bargain. The details of denuclearization will be left for a later date and, even if they are determined, will not be truly complied with.
The good news is there will be no war. That’s good news for South Koreans and other Asian nations. But the North Koreans will remain isolated and subjugated in the world’s worst prison state, with nothing more than a slight improvement of their starvation rations to look forward to.
It’s also bad news for the next U.S. president and future leaders of South Korea, who will have to deal with the inevitable crisis when it will be in Kim’s interest to once again make nuclear threats.
Is there a lesson here for the other nuclear crisis the Trump administration is blundering its way through?
The Iran deal, whether Trump decides to stick with it or walk away, and what happens in its aftermath, is not analogous to the North Korean situation. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was designed to suspend Iran’s nuclear development just before it gained the necessary weapon capabilities. That is certainly a much preferable outcome to Kim’s victory. But the Iranian leadership is not the Kim dynasty.
The ideology of Juche, developed by Kim Il Sung – which can roughly be translated as “self-reliance” – may have originally had international applications. But under his son and grandson, it came to mean insular self-preservation. North Korea’s overseas operations, arms sales, cyberhacking, counterfeiting, human trafficking and other forms of state-sponsored organized crime are carried out mainly for financial gain.
The Iranian Islamic Revolution has wider goals, and its involvement in regional conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon are as likely to ultimately derail the JCPOA as are the joint antipathy of Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the deal brokered by the Obama administration. As is the fact that while North Korea’s immediate neighbors, China and South Korea, are anxious to defuse tensions, across the Persian Gulf from Iran is Saudi Arabia – whose leaders believe that war is inevitable.
There is no happy summit solution for the Iranian crisis. The JCPOA was damned by being too closely identified as the core of Obama’s legacy. If his team hadn’t so arrogantly sold it as “Peace in our time,” but rather admitted the truth – that it was a useful but rather limited and temporary measure – it would have stood a better chance of survival.
But in the Korean Peninsula, the contours of a “successful summit” are already taking shape. Both leaders will emerge smiling. Trump will get a grand-sounding agreement and be able to say he succeeded where his predecessors failed. Kim will have guarantees for the survival of his kingdom – for a few more years at least – and keep his nuclear weapons, paying lip service to some vague promise of denuclearization. North Korea’s neighbors will also get what they want: South Korea gets another period of peace and China won’t be humiliated by losing its client state.
Kim has won. All that’s left is to try and pretend otherwise. For Trump, that comes naturally.
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