At the White House press briefing room lectern, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders essentially walked back President Trump’s promise of unconditional talks with Kim Jong Un by the end of May. She insisted that before such talks can occur — Trump never mentioned any conditions — North Korea would need to take “verifiable” steps to denuclearize. North Korea will not voluntarily denuclearize, at least under this regime and at least not now, let alone allow inspectors free rein. In imposing conditions North Korea cannot possibly agree to, the White House has wriggled out of what could have been a devastating error.
In other words, because Trump has both a massive ego and virtually no understanding of foreign policy, he foolishly leaped at the bait dangled by the South and North Koreans. Putting Kim Jong Un, a human rights criminal whose regime effectively murdered Otto Warmbier and who is in violation of multiple United Nations declarations, on the stage with the American president would have been a gift of immense proportions to Kim. It would cast him as a normal leader on the international stage, who — if Trump had his way — achieved a publicity coup without giving up anything.
Even worse — until saner heads prevailed — it would have been letting Trump in the room with Kim without North Korea doing much of anything. North Korea’s aim aside from regime preservation (which it believes requires nukes) is to use nuclear blackmail to force U.S. troops from South Korea, the first step in its long-stated goal of reunifying the peninsula under its rule of terror.
As Nicholas Eberstadt recently wrote:
We must recognize that economic pressure will not alter the intentions of the Kim family regime — ever. We must dispense with the fantasy, still inexplicably maintained in various esteemed diplomatic circles and Western universities, that Pyongyang can somehow be pressured — or bribed — at this late stage into changing its mind about its multi-decade march to a credible nuke and missile arsenal. There is no “bringing North Korea back to the table” that ends with CVID — comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Period.
Talking to Kim now would undercut much of the good work the Trump administration has actually done — relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terror, increasing sanctions. More needs to be done to impair the North Korean regime. “With better intelligence, better international coordination, and the will to get the job done, an enhanced ‘maximum economic pressure’ policy could swiftly and severely cut both North Korea’s international revenues and the vital flows of foreign supplies that sustain the economy,” Eberstadt explains. “An enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), indeed, could use interdiction not only to monitor the goods entering North Korea but also to regulate and, as necessary, suppress that level. (UN sanctions, by the way, make provisions for humanitarian imports into North Korea a matter the U.S. and others must attend to faithfully.) Yes, this is economic warfare, and it can be conducted with much more sophisticated tools than were available in the 1940s. In fact, it should be possible through such a campaign to send the North Korean economy — and the North Korean military economy — into shock, possibly even in fairly short order.”
Taking a step back, the idea of meeting with a dangerous international foe without detailed agreements in place is daft. Imagine Trump, for example, thinking he could make a deal with Iran with no expert preparation, no tedious diplomacy, no disclosure by Iran of its program, no agreed-upon parameters — simply by getting in the room with the Supreme Leader and telling him what’s what.
Trump thinks this is like a real-estate deal. He marches into the room, barks a few lines, sets a price and then goes out for a steak dinner with the guy on the other side — all the details to be worked out later. In fact, the details are the entire ballgame. (This you may recall was the conservatives’ objection to the Iran negotiating team — unwilling to walk away, the Obama team gave away too much on the fine points, giving Iran much of what it wanted, including full sanctions relief upfront.)
The fact that, given his druthers, Trump would have marched into a room without preconditions with the North Korean thug tells you everything you need to know about how erratic, dangerous and irrational he can be. Hopefully, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others have devised a solution to keep Trump at bay. We should pray that barrier lasts through the end of his time in the White House.