For the past few weeks, new national security adviser John Bolton has been publicly emphasizing that the United States would seek a “Libya-style” agreement with North Korea. A lot of experts, including me, warned that this was a deliberate effort to sabotage the prospect of a summit with North Korea. After all, bringing up instances of leaders who disarmed only to be brutally murdered is not likely to be an effective testament to the security of a world without nuclear weapons.
North Korea, it seems, has had enough.
Last week, North Korea canceled a meeting with South Korean officials and threatened to cancel a planned summit with President Trump. Ostensibly, the cancellations were over the participation of U.S. B-52 bombers in a military exercise with South Korean troops — a show of force that was to occur at the same time North Korea was scheduled to bring journalists to watch the closure of its nuclear test site. But subsequent statements made clear that the real problem were the statements by Bolton and other White House officials crowing about the impact of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and continually referencing Libya. Kim Kye-gwan, a senior North Korean official, was very direct. “It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], a nuclear weapon state, to Libya,” he said, and then mentioned Bolton by name: “We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.”
The North Korean threats worked. The United States canceled the exercise with the B-52s, taking pains to emphasize that the planes had been part of a separate and unrelated exercise all along. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders threw shade at Bolton from the podium during a briefing. Sanders denied that anyone in the White House had ever mentioned “the Libya model” — although Bolton had done so on national television — and made clear who was in charge. “This is the President Trump model. He’s going to run this the way he sees fit,” she said, before adding, “As we all know you’re aware, he’s the best negotiator, and we’re very confident on that front.” Even Trump made a game effort to further reassure Kim with promises of a different relationship, although he also managed to threaten North Korea with “total decimation” if it did not comply.
The whole thing seems to have been a coordinated effort by the Trump administration to get the summit back on track — or as coordinated an effort as might be expected from a gang that failed to successfully pay off an adult-film star. We’ll see how it works with North Korea.
The Trump-Kim summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, may yet happen — but it remains clear that, just as the experts have been saying all along, North Korea is not offering to disarm itself.
This is not the first time U.S. officials have failed to understand what the North Koreans were up to. In 2012, Obama administration officials said North Korea had agreed to suspend all long-range missile launches, including launches of satellites. Experts pointed out that the North Korean statement did not say that. Obama administration officials patted the experts on the head and encouraged us to let the professionals handle it. Then North Korea announced a space launch.
President Barack Obama’s aides assumed North Korea wanted international aid. But, in fact, what North Korea wanted was to conduct the space launch to mark the centenary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans — led by the very same Kim Kye-gwan — weren’t offering the space launch as a concession; they were bargaining to persuade us to let them do it. To this day, the diplomats involved claim North Korea double-crossed them. But the North Koreans didn’t — the Americans just weren’t listening.
Washington is repeating that mistake, telling Trump what he wants to hear instead of what the North Koreans are saying. White House officials continue to claim that North Korea, under the crushing weight of maximum pressure and cowed by threats on Twitter, is offering to abandon its nuclear weapons and open its doors to American investment. That’s nuts.
What Kim wants is something different: recognition.
Kim wants recognition for North Korea as a country, recognition for his family’s right to rule it as a personal fiefdom and, ultimately, recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed power. What Kim is offering is not disarmament, but merely restraint. Kim keeps his long-range missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads, but he promises not to make a fuss about them. He has offered to suspend the tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that prompt Trump’s Twitter tirades and even to close his nuclear test site to gin up some good press for everyone involved. He has promised not to export his nuclear technologies to other countries. Kim is even willing to speak warmly about the far-off prospect that someday, the clouds will part, peace will break out, and the Korean Peninsula will denuclearize.
But this is an aspiration, not a concrete offer to hand over the bombs. What Kim is saying is more like Obama’s pledge to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons (while maintaining an arsenal of about 4,500 of them) or China’s insistence that it stands for the “thorough prohibition of nuclear weapons” (while worrying it might need more). Disarmament talk, in this context, is simply the tribute that vice pays to virtue.
For Kim, a summit with a sitting U.S. president is a tangible manifestation of these recognitions — and also a sign that North Korea’s nuclear program has done the job. Saddam Hussein? He abandoned his nuclear weapons program, but once the United States invaded, he was dragged out of his spider hole and hanged. Moammar Gaddafi? He, too, abandoned his programs of weapons of mass destruction. The United States provided air support to opposition forces seeking to overthrow him. Gaddafi’s convoy was hit with a NATO airstrike, then overrun by rebels who exacted brutal revenge. But Kim? He completed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and as a reward, he gets a summit with the leader of the free world.
A summit accomplishes other goals for Kim, too. Although he’s hardly likely to embrace market-style democracy, Kim clearly wants Chinese and South Korean investment in North Korea’s economy — particularly to improve its infrastructure. (No doubt the Kim family will wet its beak a bit in the process.) That requires sanctions relief — or an erosion of the sanctions regime that can be weakened with exceptions and lax enforcement. Even if the summit with Trump goes nowhere, Kim is likely to find that he can continue to woo Seoul and Beijing as long as it seems he’s being reasonable.
So despite what Sanders says, it’s Kim who appears to be “the best negotiator,” because he understands leverage. Once North Korea tested a thermonuclear weapon last year, followed by a test of an ICBM to deliver it, much of the rest of the world resigned itself to the reality that like India, Israel and Pakistan, North Korea is a nuclear-armed state outside the nonproliferation regime.
Kim has had a summit with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and two meetings with China’s Xi Jinping. Each meeting referenced denuclearization, but only in vague, aspirational terms that asked little of Kim in terms of concrete steps beyond what he had already said he would do. Much of the rest of the world is willing to accept North Korea’s nuclear status, as long as Kim doesn’t make too much of a fuss about it.
Eventually, we will, too. The White House might be talking about maximum pressure, but what’s really happening is that it is moving to accommodate Kim, offering him the recognition he always believed nuclear weapons would bring. North Korean state media giddily covered the recent trip by Mike Pompeo — the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Pyongyang since then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited in 2000. I am sure the front page of the Rodong Sinmun for June 13 is already laid out. All that remains missing is the picture from Singapore.