Trump may stumble into deterrence with N. Korea
If the Singapore meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had been a zero-sum game, then Trump definitely lost. But maybe it wasn’t.
Kim got a meeting with Trump on terms of strict equality right down to the number of flags, which is a huge boost for his regime’s claim to legitimacy. He persuaded Trump to end America’s joint military exercises with South Korea (and got Trump to call them “war games” and say they were “provocative,” which no U.S. spokesperson has ever done before).
And he got Trump to accept North Korea’s deliberately vague language about the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” with no specific reference to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, let alone any talk of dismantling them. The agreement talked about “re-affirming” North Korea’s denuclearization pledge, so obviously no progress there.
This is several light-years distant from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pre-summit definition of the U.S. goal as “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction ... without delay.”
There’s no cause for surprise here. Trump is not a great deal-maker; he’s accomplished at playing the role of a great deal-maker. It’s like the deal he signed with Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote The Art of the Deal: half the advance, half royalties, and equal billing on the cover. Schwartz was as surprised and pleased then as Kim undoubtedly is now.
The South Korean government was blindsided by Trump’s spur-of-themoment promise to stop the joint military exercises. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” Seoul said, mistakenly assuming Trump himself knew his “exact meaning or intention.”
But this was not really a negotiation. It was a show, staged for the benefit of the two main participants, and they both got what they came for. They were bound to since they had the power to define the meeting as a success or a failure. Naturally, they said it was a success — but that doesn’t mean it was a failure.
All this zero-sum game nonsense is irrelevant to what is happening, or at least could happen: the gradual acceptance by the United States that North Korea is irreversibly a nuclear weapons power, although a small one, and the negotiation of some basic rules for this new relationship between two nuclear powers of radically different size.
Diplomatic and military experts have been saying for years that there is no way that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. The whole country lived on short rations for a generation to get them, and Kim is well aware of what happened to dictators who didn’t have nukes, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
Nuclear deterrence, as Bernard Brodie pointed out more than 70 years ago, works even when there is a huge disparity in the number of weapons possessed by the two sides.
If North Korea has even a marginal ability to destroy one U.S. city, the United States is deterred from using nuclear weapons against it. North Korea is deterred from attacking the United States because it would be utterly destroyed in a massive American counter-strike.
That is the destination the U.S. -North Korean relationship is heading for, because it is the only one reality permits. Kim is certainly seeking it, although it’s unlikely Trump has thought of it in these terms.
No matter. That’s what Trump is heading for, and by the time he gets there he will undoubtedly think it was his goal all along.
There will be more meetings and the two countries will move, slowly and crabwise, toward the mutual deterrence that will define their future relationship.