9 March 2018   Leave a comment

US President’s Trump’s announcement that he will accept an invitation from North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, caught everyone by surprise.  The invitation came after a South Korean delegation met with the North Korean leader, and those officials came directly to Washington to convey the invitation.

I honestly do not know how to assess this development.  On the one hand, any attempt at diplomacy is to be welcomed, particularly after the fiery rhetoric from both sides in recent months.  As I have indicated in previous posts, I think that the US recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power is the correct stance.  It is a nuclear power and should be treated as such.  Moreover, I think that North Korea has developed a nuclear capability not to attack anyone but to deter a US attack.  One must deal with the world as it is.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to figure out what is actually going on.  North Korea has tested six nuclear bombs and has tested a missile that comes close to intercontinental ranges.  It remains unclear whether the North Koreans have miniaturized a warhead to fit on the missile and whether it has a guidance system sufficient to lend targeting capability.  Thus, North Korea has come very close to developing a capability that can threaten the US homeland, a crucial attribute necessary for effective deterrence.  It has, however, not conducted any tests since last November and, with the prospect of meeting President Trump sometime soon, it is unlikely to conduct any additional tests that might jeopardize the meeting.

It is also probably the case that President Trump’s rhetoric and his success in forging sanctions that have genuinely harmed the North Korean economy.  Thus, Trump’s strategy has achieved short-term success in shifting North Korean strategy to a diplomatic track.  That diplomatic track also makes it impossible for the US to launch an attack on North Korea but also gives North Korea additional time to further develop its capabilities.

President Trump’s decision to meet Kim also satisfies one of North Korea’s key objectives: to be treated with respect.  Meeting the US President was an objective that Kim’s father and grandfather also desired but failed to realize.  There is probably no way for Mr. Trump to meet Kim without treating North Korea as a legitimate state.

That is a critical concession by the US and much depends on what it gets in return.  We have subsequently learned that Mr. Trump’s announcement was later modified by the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders:

“Let’s be very clear. The United States has made zero concessions but North Korea has made some promises. This meeting won’t take place without concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.”

Additionally, US Secretary of State Tillerson said:

“In terms of direct talks with the United States — and you asked negotiations, and we’re a long ways from negotiations….I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.”

These details will likely be worked out.  President Trump is unlikely to back down from the meeting now, but he may find pressure building to attach preconditions that Kim will not be able to meet.  The President is also hampered by the serious lack of Korean experts currently in the Administration.

We should all keep in mind that North Korea has broken promises to previous US administrations (See the 6 March post on this blog).  The most recent broken promise was made to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.  President Trump should also be aware that if he meets with Kim he must be prepared to offer concessions to North Korea if he expects North Korea to make concessions.  Apparently, South Korea and the US have agreed that US aircraft carriers will not participate in the scheduled military exercises (and perhaps nuclear submarines as well), a significant concession that is not widely known. If he goes to the meeting with only the single objective of denuclearization, then the meeting will not succeed.  First, the North Koreans define denuclearization in terms of the US-South Korean alliance so the US needs to know what the South Koreans are willing to concede.  Second, denuclearization will be nearly impossible to verify without extremely intrusive inspections, something the North Koreans would be unlikely to accept.  Inspecting a non-nuclear Iran was difficult; inspecting a country which may already have between 30-60 nuclear bombs would be very difficult.

President Trump should also be aware of the fact that denuclearization is an objective that no other country save Japan believes critically important.  South Korean President Moon has already decided that diplomacy is the only route to better relations with the North.  China and Russia have already accepted North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.  So the US will be negotiating without allies supporting its singular objective.  Moreover, there is substantial evidence that substantial portions of President Trump’s administration do not support any concessions to North Korea:  the military, the intelligence community, and many Republicans.

With all these caveats in mind, I think the idea of a meeting is a worthwhile risk since I am not deeply troubled by North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.  Perhaps Kim should think seriously about having a very dramatic and impressive military parade.

Posted March 9, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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