By Daniel DePetris
What to make of President Donald Trump’s acceptance of a face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program?
Before answering, it’s important to remember what’s most important for the United States: To make sure that North Korea never uses its nuclear weapons. Thankfully, our overwhelming conventional and nuclear deterrent ensures America’s security.
At first blush, it is difficult not to treat this announcement as a potential breakthrough given the absence of any diplomatic momentum in years past. Nuclear diplomacy with the North Koreans has been dead since 2012, when Pyongyang reneged on an agreement to place a moratorium on its nuclear activity and ballistic missile tests. The multilateral Six Party talks have been dormant for nine years, so any progress toward a diplomatic process—particularly one involving direct talks between leaders from the U.S. and North Korea—is a significant development.
In the real world, however, the frantic dialogue between North and South Korea since the Winter Olympic Games and the announcement of a Trump-Kim summit this May - culminating in Pyongyang’s sudden eagerness to discuss denuclearization - has more than a decent chance of dying before a comprehensive accord is reached.
The history of North Korean nuclear diplomacy is a dizzying roller coaster of lost hopes and misplaced expectations; just when world diplomats thinks they have finally arrived at a verifiable agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the Kim regime either violates the agreement or stalls at the very last minute on what the verification mechanisms would include. Lawmakers in Washington are at best skeptical of Kim Jong-un’s intent. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson summarized what many in the United States, Japan, Europe, and South Korea are thinking: “We’re a long way from negotiations, we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.”
The bottom line is that today, invitation to President Trump and all, we don’t know for certain if Kim Jong-un is sincere in his offer to negotiate the denuclearization of his regime—let alone strike a deal that would make denuclearization a reality. Over 26 years ago, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather made the same promise when he signed a declaration pledging “to eliminate the danger of nuclear war through the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” In 2005, Kim’s father did exactly the same thing. It goes without saying that neither of those declarations were implemented in real time.
President Trump, therefore, has an obligation to tread these diplomatic waters carefully, recognizing that however eager Kim Jong-un is now to negotiate, he will not abolish his nuclear weapons arsenal for free. The price could be any or all of the following: withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Korea and Japan, diplomatic normalization, termination of U.N. Security Council and unilateral U.S. sanctions, the severing of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
This is exactly why a deterrence and containment policy in so important for the United States.
In the very likely event diplomacy fails as it has in the past, the Trump administration will still be able to manage the North Korean nuclear issue by relying on the bedrock principles that helped the U.S. win the Cold War. While a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons is far from the ideal from a non-proliferation perspective, Washington can still make the best of a complicated situation through a combination of pragmatic military-to-military communication with the North, steadfast support for America’s Asian alliances, greater burden sharing within the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance, and the unequivocal threat of an unequivocal U.S. military response should Pyongyang be stupid or reckless enough to use its nuclear arsenal or sell nuclear technology to other governments.
Notwithstanding Kim Jong-un’s “mad man” persona, the 30-something-year-old dictator has actually revealed himself to be a clever, ruthlessly pragmatic individual with concrete national security and prosperity goals—that gives us great leverage, which we should exploit. At the top of the list is regime preservation and the accumulation of power within that regime, two of most basic objectives of authoritarians and tyrants throughout the nuclear age. Kim is in many ways like every other dictator who possessed a nuclear capability, be it the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin or the military officers who run Pakistan’s national security policy. The personality traits of a Kim and a Nikita Khrushchev may be different people, but both are similar in maintaining their perks, privileges, and dominance in the system and preventing a foreign invasion.
As long as the U.S. does not launch a preventive military attack or attempt to forcefully change the regime in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un is as likely to launch an out-of-the-blue, nuclear first strike as China’s Mao Zedong was in the 1950’s or Russia’s Vladimir Putin is today. He knows well that any such action would be a death sentence. The Kim family grasps with this quite well; North Korea, after all, has been a nuclear state since 2006, and not once has the Kim dynasty thought it in their interest to lob a nuclear missile toward U.S. troops in the region.
The Trump administration should poke and prod the North Koreans in order to determine whether they are truly interested in denuclearization talks this time. Even if an agreement is farfetched, communication with the North Koreans is critical to ensure North Korea doesn’t miscalculate or cross any red lines. It’s important to engage directly so Pyongyang doesn’t stumble into any accident. And if the South Koreans are right and Kim Jong-un wants to sit down and talk, it would be diplomatic malpractice for the White House not to participate.
But in the chance that those talks break down in the preliminary stages or are killed before they begin, President Trump need not resort to the John Bolton-option of preventive military force, one that would guarantee a North Korean nuclear exchange and a catastrophic Armageddon in East Asia. Deterrence will hold, as it always has.
Daniel R. DePetris is fellow at Defense Priorities and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat, Inc. He is a columnist for the National Interest, Rare Politics, the American Conservative, and The Huffington Post.
This piece was originally published by The Los Angeles Times on March 9, 2018. Read more HERE.