BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The Trump Administration is learning something that every American leader since the 1990s has learned: the North Koreans are as unpredictable as they are untrustworthy. I have long said not to trust North Korea when it comes to nuclear weapons development: it has been the sine qua non of the Kim Regime’s existence for over 30 years. It will require much for the North to surrender those ambitions–particularly if they cannot exact meaningful concessions from the West (and, even if they do, there is no guarantee that the North will abandon its quest for nuclear arms–particularly being no more than 18 months away from a fully functional arsenal).
Though, to be fair, the recent budding talks between North Korea and the West does seem somewhat different. And, while we must remain skeptical, given the history of diplomacy between Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul, observers should be hopeful that something good can come out of this. After all, only Nixon could go to China…and only George W. Bush could befriend Muammar Gaddafi of Libya (a lot of good that did the latter). In fact, it is the ghosts of both Libya’s Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein that seems to be plaguing the already-twisted thoughts of North Korea’s rule, Kim Jong-un. The Kim Regime is not necessarily incorrect to fear how tempting of a target they might become to the United States should they outrightly abandon the pursuit of nuclear arms. So, to keep the talks alive, President Trump publicly assured the North Korean leader that the “Libyan Model” (for regime change) was not on the table in talks with the North (unless, as Trump ominously added, the talks failed). Despite the setbacks, though, the fact that the pending summit on June 12 between American and North Korean leaders in Singapore has not yet been called off implies that Pyongyang remains supportive of the notion of meeting.
Having said that, however, it is important to understand that North Korea has been backed into a diplomatic corner. It is likely that Kim Jong-un made the initial offer to meet with the Western alliance with the thought that a) the Western leadership (namely President Trump) would refuse the invitation outright or b) that Pyongyang could effectively de-link South Korea from the United States. While it is true that Seoul is deeply interested in a peace agreement with Pyongyang–any agreement–South Korean leadership appears to be taking a more even-handed approach: they continue to call for increased talks between the various parties to the conflict whilst standing firm in its commitments with the United States.
When President Trump accepted Kim Jong-un’s initial offer as readily as he did, Trump not only upended North Korean grand strategy, but he also went into the forthcoming summit in an advantageous position: he appeared to be the one leading these talks. And, for Kim, this is a bad position to be in. This is why the North Korean strongman sent out the tweet 2 weeks ago cautioning the Trump Administration about publicly overstating its role in the ongoing negotiations between North and South Korea. It is one of the many reasons why Kim ultimately terminated a critical meeting earlier this week between himself and the South Korean leadership–even though he has kept the talks with Donald Trump in Singapore on the books (for now).
Trump must stop spiking the ball. Everyone–including the South Koreans–have lauded the president for his instrumental maximum pressure campaign (notably against North Korea’s greatest enabler on the international stage, China). The Trump Administration must stop bringing up the historic nature of these pending talks (and reminding the world of the president’s role in forging these talks) whenever they find themselves in a PR jam. Fact is, the North Koreans are in uncharted diplomatic waters and are looking for any excuse to perform an about-face, and return to port. Trump needs to woo Kim Jong-un out into the deep diplomatic waters, far from land and he, along with the South Korean leadership, must be the ones to offer young Kim a path forward (other than nuclear brinkmanship).
The biggest threat to this negotiation, unfortunately, could be the American leadership’s need to endlessly self-promote. Remember, no deal has been signed yet. None of the parties have committed to anything other than sitting down at a big, beautiful table in Singapore, and talking. Even the meeting is in question now, as Kim continues pushing back against Trump’s loud claims of (premature) success. Kim knows that he cannot unilaterally end the talks without suffering extreme international blowback. So, he would prefer to position Trump in a way that the United States would have proverbial egg on its face as opposed to Pyongyang. If Trump would lay low on the North Korean summit talk until after June 12, he’d do himself and the world a favor. Otherwise, Pyongyang will walk away before anything is accomplished.
Those who are reading this with consternation must understand, that while I am highly skeptical of the talks, I am deeply hopeful. For, the alternative to talking and peaceably ending the 50-year Korean War (and getting Kim to de-nuclearize) is to go to war. The White House has already stated its intention of non-negotiable de-nuclearization. Presently, Pyongyang is in a talking mood. That could all change–especially if Kim’s honor is perceived as having been slighted by Trump’s continual public bluster. Given these facts–and the fact that the North may be only 18 months (tops) away from acquiring a full-fledged nuclear arsenal–it stands to reason that the alternative will be a major war on the peninsula and that will benefit no one.
Give peace a chance and let diplomacy work. Until the meeting, Trump should keep his twitter aimed at domestic politics and Iran. Leave North Korea alone until we can get a better read on North Korean intentions at the Singapore summit.