North Korea has long sought to be treated as an equal by Washington; nuclear weapons, in addition to the pragmatic survival and deterrence benefits they confer, undoubtedly also bring Pyongyang status. Kim hopes to convert that status into diplomatic capital, sitting down with Trump for a comprehensive discussion about the future of the Korean Peninsula, nuclear weapon state to nuclear weapon state.
It’s not clear that the Trump administration has internalized this. I’ve long supported governmental talks between the United States and North Korea. Before jumping straight ahead to a leaders’ summit, the two sides could have started at a lower level, with Trump perhaps announcing the creation of a presidential envoy for the Korean Peninsula.
There are plenty of lower-level, critical items for the two sides to address, including military-to-military communications. Here we have two nuclear states that the world witnessed exchanging threats in 2017 that don’t have a way to walk each other back from the brink. If there’s a no-brainer place to start, that would be it.
I fear too that by entering talks with their eyes set on the “denuclearization” objective, the Trump administration is setting itself up for disappointment and also predisposing itself to allow perfection to become the enemy of the good. If Kim is willing to enter a freeze in exchange for zero concessions from the international community on sanctions, the Trump administration should be open to an indefinite extension of that freeze, working eventually toward verifiable caps on North Korea’s arsenal. Everything to date suggests that’s simply not on the table.
For Kim, a meeting with Trump will be an unalloyed propaganda victory. Trump will assuredly not “achieve permanent denuclearization,” despite what he told Chung. Instead, Kim will be given the opportunity to stage-manage a photo-op with a U.S. president. The costs of a freeze in nuclear and ballistic missile testing for the next two months are relatively minor for North Korea compared to the benefits of a meeting with Trump. [Continue reading…]
Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.