Trump's North Korea Gambit Could End in Disaster
Why the North Koreans could be serious about denuclearizing, and how it might fail.
President Donald Trump's apparent upcoming meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has so far been met with mixed reactions. Some say the historic meeting will be a forum for North Korea to accept peace and bring an end to its nuclear program, but others say that the Kim regime is likely just looking to play the Trump administration. Whether or not they believe the North Koreans are meeting in good faith, many have made the argument that a direct meeting between the two heads of state could be too dangerous, which is why a US president has never met with a North Korean dictator in the history of the two countries. Others argue that a photo op for Kim Jong-Un with a sitting US president is too valuable to give without any preconditions. There is no shortage of criticism to the planned meeting.
If the meeting does take place, what are the most likely outcomes? Well, it's still too early to tell what American demands will be and what North Korea will seek in return. What we do know, however, is the players who will be involved. Both Trump and Kim are known to be difficult negotiators who aren't afraid to walk away from the table when things aren't going their way. This tactic might work if you're negotiating a New York property deal, but in international relations, heightened tensions could cost lives. If Trump and Kim do meet face to face in May, mutual respect can be expected to play an integral role in the actions of both heads of state.
A breakdown in negotiations between the United States and North Korea could easily bring the Peninsula closer to war. Though war is not in the best interest of any party involved, it becomes increasingly likely as the chance of a diplomatic row is elevated. Trump is not known for his measured demeanor. He is better known for his off-the-cuff remarks that have previously landed him in hot water. A mistake like that in front of the North Korean dictator could escalate tensions even further.
Kim Jong-Un is a shrewd political leader who, judging from past actions, isn't afraid to show his strength. It seems more likely, however, that a high-level meeting between the American and North Korean governments would be an opportunity for Kim to use flattery to get his way. Trump has repeatedly stated that he likes people who like him, and Kim Jong-Un will exploit that weakness.
Trump, suffering politically at home while the Russia investigation rages on, will be seeking a win in the upcoming meeting. He may push hard for a denuclearized North Korea, a notion at which the Kim regime has hinted. The two major issues on the board will be the North Korean nuclear weapons program (including its ballistic missile program) and human rights issues in the North. Trump's standards for human rights may prove to be lower than previous US presidents (as his rhetoric suggests), thereby lowering the bar for an acceptable agreement between the two governments.
The denuclearization of North Korea would necessarily come at a high cost. As a guaranteur of North Korean sovereignty, the nuclear weapons program is an important insurance policy for the Kim regime. While it's impossible to know what the North's strategy will be, if they truly intend on offering a possibility of denuclearization, it's important to understand why that could be beneficial.
The Trump administration has discussed a "bloody nose" strike on North Korea in order to pressure it to give up its nuclear weapons. Critics of a limited strike argued that the risk of retaliation or misinterpretation could reescalate the Korean conflict and cause hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. The North, however, would have the most to lose. Its core interest is the survival of the regime, which would be threatened by any form of military engagement with the United States.
We must acknowledge, though, the important fact that the possession of nuclear weapons is an important propaganda tool for the Kim regime. Losing its nukes in a deal with a foreign power would be a blow to the national morale. This could be an unacceptable outcome for the North Korean dictator, as it might also risk the security of the regime.
The critical issue at the heart of the upcoming meeting will be the North Korean government's interpretation of the last six decades of history. Why hasn't war broken out in all this time, despite North Korea not possessing nuclear weapons until recently? Is the possibility of conventional war enough of a deterrent to forcible regime change to warrant giving up a successful nuclear weapons program? It's possible that North Korea has calculated that its nuclear weapons are more valuable as a bargaining chip than as a deterrent for conflict. It's also possible they just want to pull Trump's chain.