By Daniel DePetris
Donald Trump is nothing if not an unconventional president. His decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June 2018 was a quintessentially unconventional and daring move. The Washington elites huffed, puffed, and called it an unforgivable mistake as if U.S. policy on North Korea was a bevy of good news over the last quarter-century. But in the real world of statecraft, making peace with enemies requires a dialogue—sometimes at the very top.
The sudden handshake between Trump and Kim this weekend at the Demilitarized Zone, after which Trump crossed the border into North Korean territory, will inevitably result in more allegations from this same crowd. This event, they will say, is all pageantry and no substance. Yet symbolism is enormously important for Korean leaders—and it doesn’t get more symbolic than an American president voluntarily entering North Korean territory for the first time since the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953.
The message was unmistakable: Trump is sincerely trying to put U.S.-North Korea relations on a better path.
Ultimately, this story isn’t about Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Stephen Biegun, Mike Pompeo, or any other individual. It’s about peace on the Korean Peninsula and working to irrevocably shut the door on nearly seven decades of deeply adversarial relations that almost resulted in war between Washington and Pyongyang on countless occasions. Needless to say, war on the Korean Peninsula would be a bonafide disaster with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of casualties on all sides. Moving as far away as possible from this nightmare scenario and facilitating a durable calm on both sides of the DMZ should be the paramount U.S. objective.
While we would all like to imagine Kim waking up one morning and making the decision to denuclearize his country, the probability of this happening is somewhere between zero and nil. While the Trump administration remains committed to Pyongyang’s final, fully verified nuclear dismantlement, U.S. officials would be fooling themselves if they believed Kim is truly interested in eliminating his arsenal. This is, after all, an arsenal that has been constructed across three generations of the Kim family dynasty at extensive cost to the regime’s coffers, economic potential and diplomatic legitimacy. It would make no practical sense for Kim to go through the anguish of producing all of these nuclear weapons, only to decide they are no longer worth the trouble.
Nukes are an essential ingredient to the survival of Kim’s regime. The U.S. intelligence community assessed just a week earlier that there is no evidence North Korea is intent on abolishing its nuclear weapons program or trading away the stockpile it has developed. All of the sanctions and threats of military action in the world have nudged Kim in this direction. Vague promises from Washington of economic and political normalization haven’t had much luck either.
Fortunately, the superior conventional and nuclear firepower of the United States renders much of the concern over a nuclear North Korea moot. The U.S. may not like or accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons, but it can live with this situation as long as it needs to.
Kim, like all heads-of-state on the planet, is fixated on self-preservation. He is a brutal leader, however he understands what would occur if he was stupid or suicidal enough to use his nuclear weapons against the United States or its partners in East Asia: his regime would be gone; his country would be ruined; and he and his family would very likely be dead.
Secretary Pompeo’s announcement that working-level talks with Pyongyang will resume in mid-July is promising and certainly better than returning to the highly dangerous “fire and fury” rhetoric the world witnessed in 2017. But if this sudden burst of momentum is to last and actually produce clear results, the Trump administration should enter these discussions with its eyes wide-open and with its denuclearization fantasies in check. For while a non-nuclear North Korea is very likely off the table, the U.S. and the North can still find a way to coexist peacefully and forge a constructive bilateral relationship that decreases the prospects of a conflict.
Significant progress can be made if the administration is willing to embrace a paradigm shift in how it perceives the North Korea issue. Washington must make peace the first U.S. priority.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on June 30, 2019. Read more HERE.