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When Donald J. Trump took office in January 2017, the outgoing Obama Administration national security team cautioned Trump’s transition team that North Korea was a significant nuclear threat. Obama White House officials explained how North Korea’s leaders had built up their nascent nuclear arsenal. Since at least 2013, the Obama Administration knew about the rising threat of a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea and did nothing.
It was not a matter of ignorance; it was a matter of indifference on the part of former President Barack Obama and his national security team. Obama—the man who the media claimed was the smartest of all of America’s presidents—likely had no idea how to mitigate the North Korean threat and therefore didn’t even try.
How’s that for leadership?
Tag, You’re It, Donald Trump!
Two years into Trump’s presidency, the world seemed poised for nuclear war in a way that it hadn’t since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yes, the combined forces of the United States, South Korea, Japan, and any other ally inevitably would have overcome North Korea’s military in combat. But, the cost would have been great—particularly to South Korea and the Americans stationed there.
Such a war also would have forced the United States to lead yet another regime change mission, this time in Pyongyang. And it is likely that such a war ultimately would have placed the United States in direct contention both with China and Russia. The Chinese in particular view North Korea as a client state. .
As tensions escalated in 2017, the media argued that President Trump was too slow to engage in diplomacy; that his “my button is bigger than your button” rhetoric toward Kim Jong-un was outrageous. After months of mounting hostilities between the two leaders, Trump switched gears and met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
During that historic summit the two sides had a chance to look each other in the eyes to see if they could do business.
It was a Nixon-goes-to-China or a Reagan-meets-Gorbachev moment: no one in the American elite believed that it could have happened.
But President Trump made it happen.
The president got Kim to acquiesce to our continuing demands for a slowdown in his nuclear weapons tests and his ballistic missile tests. Since that time, the world has enjoyed nearly two years of peace and quiet from North Korea. Meanwhile, Kim returned the remains of multiple American servicemen who had died on the battlefield in North Korea more than 60 years ago. More historic reckonings happened over the course of 2018, this time between North Korea and their American-backed rivals in democratic South Korea.
Diplomacy Is Messy—War Is Worse
Trump’s summit in Hanoi this week was a more muted affair—mostly because the Western press opted instead to follow along with the fictitious melodrama playing out with Michael Cohen hearings on Capitol Hill.
Talk of greater opening and contact between North Korea and the United States continued but the Western media complained that Trump was moving too fast toward diplomacy with Kim. Some people will never be pleased.
Despite his rhetoric, Kim appears uninterested in abandoning his nuclear program. The entire point of the Trump-Kim summits was not to put a temporary hold on North Korea’s inexorable march toward nuclear weapons capability. Rather, the goal was to get North Korea to abandon those nukes completely. But they do not call North Korea the “Hermit Kingdom” for nothing. And, diplomacy is a piecemeal and oftentimes convoluted process.
Despite this, the Trump and Kim interactions before the press made clear that there still exists some level of understanding between the two leaders. During the first day of events, both President Trump and Kim Jong-un had a five-minute televised sit-down before the press. In the last five seconds of the video, one of the American reporters began shouting questions to Trump (who did not respond). At that moment, Kim started chuckling to himself and gave a sympathetic glance to the president who returned with a nod of understanding. That was one of the most honest—and human—interactions I’ve ever seen between Kim Jong-un and another leader. No level of personal understanding between leaders will overcome fundamental ideological disagreements or conflicts of national interest. But they are essential to the understanding that makes negotiation possible.
That the second summit between the American and North Korean leadership was not as successful as the meeting in Singapore is something that was probably to be expected. This is high-stakes diplomacy. That Kim Jong-un did not cry, “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of nuclear war when President Trump decided to cut his losses and leave the summit early is also telling. It means that Kim wants to make a deal, and still believes he can get one.
Does Kim Risk Peace or Court War? It’s Now Fully Up to Him
Whether Kim Jong-un will be able or willing to abandon his desire for nuclear arms in order to get this deal is another matter entirely.
Once it becomes clear to Kim that the president is not going to acquiesce to North Korean demands the way that former President Obama gave into Iranian demands in 2015, North Korea will have to reassess. If they refuse and persist in their ambition to acquire a nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang will precipitate a conflict the likes of which Kim and his regime will not survive—and regime survival, at this point, is essential for Kim. In fact, it is likely the desire for regime survival that belies North Korea’s continued quest for nuclear arms. He needs to be made to see that this is not the way to achieve that goal.
Peace may be dangerous for Kim, but war will destroy him. Because of Trump’s decision to terminate the Hanoi summit prematurely, he now leaves Kim in a bind, having to choose between risking peace or courting war.
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Photo credit: Tuan Mark/Getty Images