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Most commentary on the Trump/Kim summit is evidence of partisan stampede thinking. Herewith are the insights of an old professor of international affairs, who does not know what is on Trump’s or Kim’s mind any more than anyone else, but who strives to be dispassionate.
The 33-year history of negotiations about “denuclearizing” the Korean peninsula is too well known to recount here. Suffice to say that, for Americans, it has been a triumph of hope over experience, for the North Koreans an unfailing fount of assistance in the building of a redoubtable force of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles capable of reaching and commanding respect from America. For China, it has been an incomparable tool for showing other Asians that America cannot protect itself, much less them. The salient question is how this round might possibly be different.
The standard conservative answer, that Trump faced Kim with the choice between denuclearizing or being crushed, is just nuts.
Crushed how? Certainly not militarily. The United States has no way of destroying North Korea’s missiles. We have no way of knowing where they are. Nor do we know where most of its nuclear programs are located. And if we did, no one advocates starting a nuclear war to do it—especially since China has made clear that it is on North Korea’s side.
Crush it economically? Trump vowed “maximum pressure.” But since North Korea lives by China, crushing North Korea means convincing China to do it. China has promised something like that again and again. But, now as ever, North Korea is what it is and does what it does because China wants it so. Indeed, China’s first reaction to the Trump/Kim summit was to drop even verbal support for sanctions, and urge others to do the same. Hence, talk about “crushing” is just talk.
What about denuclearization? On which of the following scenarios two years hence would you, gentle reader, bet your net worth? a) North Korea will have no nuclear weapons or intercontinental missiles, b) North Korea will have fewer nukes and ICBMs than today, c) North Korea will have about the same number of nukes and ICBMs as today, or d) North Korea will have more nukes and ICBMs than today.
Consider how much effort the Kim regime put into acquiring these weapons, and the primordial role they fill in its domestic and international assertion of legitimacy. Consider also the (bad cop) role the North Koreans play in China’s effort to expel U.S. political-military influence in the Western Pacific—its main geopolitical objective. What, if anything, has happened recently so momentous as to have led the Kims to hazard their very lives and China’s to abandon a principal geopolitical tool? I cannot think of any. Can you? Therefore, I would bet North Korea has more nukes and ICBMs in two years than it does today.
On the other hand, the best of the establishment’s commentary on the Trump/Kim summit—the essence of which is that Trump has fallen hard for the oldest of diplomatic traps—is premised on gratuitous assumptions.
The first, that Trump is as starry-eyed as Fox News, declaring victory and “giving away the store” unaware or mindless of the equities and history involved, is belied by his own statements, foremost of which is “we’ll see.” And were Trump’s irresponsibility plausible, national security adviser John Bolton’s is not. In addition to the equities and history the establishment’s assumption is based on the fact that Trump, uncharacteristically, has started the negotiating process by making unilateral concessions: suspension of U.S military exercises in the region, raising the prospect of removing U.S troops from South Korea, and “normalized” diplomatic treatment of North Korea. He even saluted a North Korean officer. Machiavelli, however, reminds us that uncharacteristic errors may be indications of ulterior motives.
The second gratuitous assumption, that Trump actually expects North Korea and China to eliminate or even to reduce North Korea’s armaments, makes it impossible for the establishment to imagine that Trump may be pursuing an entirely different objective. Consider the possibility that Trump, Bolton, etc. concluded that China-supported North Korea is a nuclear power, irrevocably. In that case, the best way to contain both North Korea and China is to mobilize South Korea, and above all Japan, to become very serious about their own defense. Doing that requires forcing them to face unvarnished reality.
If this were the case, Trump would have regarded South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s offer to broker a summit with Kim as a golden opportunity to show Asians, once and for all, the need to take up their own defenses. By taking Kim’s promise of denuclearization at face value and meeting it by advancing all that pacifist Japanese and Koreans might want, and by setting a deadline for his own definitive judgment on North Korea/China’s seriousness he set up a confrontation between North Korea/China and South Korea/Japan six months from now.
Between now and December, through the midterm congressional elections, the media will continue to bet on options a) and b). If they blame Trump, it will be for being too much of a peacemaker. Then, as Trump recognizes the inevitability of options c) and d), he will have gone a long way to accomplish what his campaign implied, to induce Japan and maybe South Korea, to go nuclear.
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images