What’s next for U.S., North Korea? Wheeling, dealing for peace If Kim, Trump meet, it will — maybe to escape scandals be a beginning, not the end
SEOUL — There is nothing like a meeting with a dictator to get out of problems at home. The visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, just as President Donald Trump was jettisoning the Iran deal, shows Trump’s eagerness to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and come up with a statesman-like solution to the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.
Assuming Trump really does see Kim, could there be any better way to distract attention from all the problems besetting him in Washington? For a few blessed days, maybe more, he would be free of the threat of interrogation by special counsel Robert Mueller and all the questions about his lawyer Michael Cohen.
He might not even have to worry about the next headlines, and salacious jokes, about the porn star Stormy Daniels and seances with Russian women while getting to know President Vladimir Putin. All that happened before he ran for president, but his past is catching up with him just as he would like to be “making America great again.”
With Trump in the same room with Kim, all they need is to escape with a joint declaration that saves face for both. Kim can say, OK, we’ll begin to get rid of our nuclear program while you withdraw your troops. Never mind if neither really happens. Trump is looking for headlines, maybe a few quotes and columns about what a great choice he’d make for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Think of the wave of popular support he might create if he came home with a real deal with the North Koreans after his predecessors in the White House had failed. How could all those columnists and academics who hate him carry on with such impunity against his claim to have put out a fire that threatened only half a year ago to explode into a regional conflagration?
There’s no guarantee, of course, that Kim will cooperate. What if Kim stonewalls Trump’s demands for dumping his nukes and missiles? Or what if he says, I’ll begin doing it after the United Nations removes sanctions and you begin withdrawing your troops? One reason Trump sent Pompeo to Pyongyang again, on his second trip, is to try to reach a deal well in advance, to avoid any surprises.
By getting tough with Iran, undercutting the deal so carefully wrought in concert with major European powers, Trump is sending a warning to North Korea. Having denounced the Iran deal as really terrible, he’s tossing the whole thing just as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long demanded. He’s telling the North Koreans, so close to Iranians in wheeling and dealing on nuclear technology and missiles, he won’t compromise with them either.
The future, though, may not work out so simply. What if the Iranians now go back to developing the means to fabricate nuclear warheads on which they stopped work under the terms of the deal? Would Trump consider a pre-emptive strike on their nuclear facilities, as he once threatened North Korea? And do the Israelis really want conflict in the Middle East to escalate to an entirely new level?
Always, however, Trump is playing to the crowd in Washington. On Korea, he may still choose to mingle firmness with flexibility. Having made good on his promises to walk out of the agreement with Iran, he may opt for an appearance of reaching a deal for lasting peace in Korea.
For Trump, his future in office depends on his ability to have it both ways, proving his statesman-like qualities to enough of his loyal voter base to ensure his safety against impeachment and the survival of his presidency. He’s counting on Kim to help him weather the storm. COMMENTARY |
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has gone from international pariah to suddenly become everyone’s most sought-after companion in a few short months. Since his New Year’s olive branch to the South, he has met twice with Chinese President Xi Jinping and, most dramatically, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, while setting in motion preparations for a truly historic first ever summit between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president.
President Xi had previously refused to meet with Kim, reportedly out of frustration and annoyance with the North Korean leader’s actions. Suddenly, it appeared as if Xi was playing catch-up to avoid being marginalized in the emerging peace offensive. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo quickly began signaling his own willingness (eagerness?) to meet with Kim; can Vladimir Putin be far behind?
President Trump has received — and taken — a great deal of credit in stimulating the North’s diplomatic overtures (although calls for awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize are incredibly premature) and there is no doubt his “fire and fury” threats and “extreme pressure” campaign contributed to the current flurry of diplomatic activity. But, did threats of war or increasingly tighter sanctions frighten Kim to the table? Or, did the prospect of conflict so scare Moon that he offered incentives to Kim to cooperate? Or is this all part of a clever North Korean ploy, with Moon and Trump eagerly taking the bait? I fear the latter, but only time will tell. The North Koreans, of course, firmly reject the idea that they have been frightened or bullied into making their diplomatic overtures; Pyongyang sees itself entering into the diplomatic arena from a position of strength, not weakness, due to its “powerful deterrent.” Skeptics (myself included) also see the assertion in the Moon-Kim Panmunjom Declaration that “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” not as an acceptance of the U.S. demand for CVID — complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization — but as a North Korean statement that Korea Peninsula denuclearization first requires global disarmament; i.e., that it would be willing to enter into global disarmament talks with the U.S., which would legitimize the its status as a nuclear weapon state.
Skepticism aside, the Moon-Kim summit provides cause for cautious optimism. One largely overlooked statement in the Panmunjom Declaration seemed particularly significant:
“South and North Korea agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”
In the past, the North has argued that any peace treaty should be between the U.S. and North Korea, or at most the U.S., North Korea and China. South Korea was always the odd man out. This statement indicates that Pyongyang is now ready to negotiate a peace accord with Washington and Seoul. This is an encouraging, potentially significant breakthrough.
As the Trump-Kim summit approaches, the only thing rising higher than expectations about the outcome are anxieties that it could result in disaster, either with Trump walking out in anger (leaving few options short of more extreme pressure and/or military action) or being tricked into what seems like a good deal by the North, whose real goal is not denuclearization but a lifting of sanctions and the gaining of international credibility and status as a member of the nuclear weapons club.
Given the leadership system in effect in Pyongyang and Trump’s mercurial tendencies, it is absolutely essential that both leaders agree on general principles and objectives if there is ever going to be real prospects for peace on the peninsula.
While more traditional summits usually signal the end of a diplomatic process, the Trump-Kim meeting, if and when it occurs, will at best merely signal the beginning.