South Korean conservatives have had two nightmare scenarios about President Trump: that he would either embroil their country in a ruinous war with North Korea or that he would sell out their interests to the North.
Trump spent his first year in office lending credence to the first concern. He threatened to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea. He called its dictator, Kim Jong Un, “Little Rocket Man,” and bragged that his “nuclear button” was much bigger than Kim’s. Administration officials claimed that deterrence couldn’t work and discussed the possibility of a “bloody nose” strike that could have triggered a nuclear war.
Now, in a head-snapping display of incoherence, Trump has agreed to meet Kim, giving the worst human-rights abuser on the planet what he most wants: international legitimacy. Kim will be able to tell his people that the American president is kowtowing to him because he is scared of North Korea’s mighty nuclear arsenal.
As recently as August, Trump tweeted: “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” He was absolutely right. For decades, North Korea has engaged in a bait-and-switch. It has staged provocations, such as the torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship in 2010, interspersed with offers to negotiate. The end game has always been the same: It has hoped to be paid for not staging further provocations. In other words, it was attempting to blackmail the West.
That strategy paid off spectacularly during the “sunshine policy” years of 1998 to 2008. Progressive governments in Seoul delivered approximately $8 billion in economic assistance and got nothing in return. North Korea reneged on its 1994 pledge to the United States to freeze its nuclear development and instead raced ahead with a secret nuclear enrichment program. South Korea’s current president, Moon Jae-in, was a top aide to President Roh Moo-hyun, one of the presidents who pursued the sunshine policy, and evidently he has not lost his faith in negotiations with the North. Admittedly, from his perspective, it makes sense to do anything possible to stop Trump from starting Korean War II.
Moon and Kim have, for their own reasons, snookered the credulous American president into a high-profile summit that is likely to end in disaster one way or another. Kim is evidently willing to suspend his nuclear and missile tests while the talks are underway, but this is a minimal concession that can easily be reversed. He is most likely willing to do even that much only to buy time for his engineers to finish developing a nuclear warhead that can fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
The South Koreans claim that the North Koreans are willing to discuss denuclearization, but the likelihood is that they will only do so on terms that the United States should never accept. Kim may offer to give up his nukes if the United States will pull its forces out of South Korea and sign a peace treaty with the North. Trump, if confronted with such a scenario, may imagine it is a big “win” for him, but that’s only because he knows nothing of North Korea and has no one at a senior level in his administration who does. Victor Cha was supposed to be the ambassador to Seoul, but his nomination was withdrawn by White House hard-liners, while Joseph Yun, the top State Department envoy to North Korea, just announced his retirement.
If Trump bothered to talk to North Korea experts, he would undoubtedly learn that Kim’s regime is pursuing its age-old aim of pushing U.S. military forces off the Korean Peninsula, enabling Pyongyang to use its military power to coerce South Korea into unification on the North’s terms — i.e., the extension of a Stalinist dictatorship across the entire peninsula. Even if that’s not possible, North Korea hopes at a minimum for a relaxation of sanctions just when they are beginning to bite.
But, of course, the president doesn’t listen to experts. He just ignored the unanimous opinion of economists that trade wars are calamitous by imposing steel and aluminum tariffs. Now Trump is rushing into a risky summit without having gotten anything substantial in return and without, apparently, having even consulted the State Department.
It may make sense to talk to North Korea, but at a lower level, while maintaining the “maximum pressure” sanctions policy. Eventually the regime may feel so much pain that it will be willing to bargain in earnest. But there is no reason to think that the time is now and much reason to assume that Trump, as usual, doesn’t know what he is doing.