Trump needs to test North Korea's intentions -- Now

Almost out of the blue, North Korea seems to want to talk to everyone – including the United States. The so-called Hermit Kingdom, which almost brought the world to the brink of war last year, is now suddenly singing a different tune.

Thanks to a pressure campaign by President Trump and his administration, here’s what North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has agreed to:

  • There will be a summit of North and South Korean leaders, the first of its kind in many years.
  • North Korea has agreed to halt any nuclear and missile testing while talks are ongoing. This is a huge development, considering it was such testing that could have very well spawned a downward spiral leading to a second Korean War, possibly costing millions of people their lives.
  • In a big win for the Trump administration, Kim Jong Un put on the table the idea that North Korea would be willing to talk about denuclearization – actually dismantling its atomic arsenal.
  • The North Koreans have also said they would be willing to negotiate with the Trump administration directly. This seems very possible now because the North is no longer insisting that it will never – under any circumstances – give up its nukes. 

So, is the North Korean crisis is over? Is peace at hand? Will the North give up its nuclear weapons, conclude a long sought peace treaty with the U.S. and South Korea and eventually reunify with the South into a single nation? Is the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula finally coming to an end?

No – imagining all these things will now happen would be wildly optimistic. In fact, if one thing is certain, it is that we are entering a more dangerous dance with Pyongyang than ever before.

As they say, talk is cheap, and the Trump administration must move quickly to probe North Korea’s intentions – to see if Kim and his regime are truly committed to the promises they have made.

If not, we are doomed to another round of months, maybe years, of fruitless talks with the Kim regime that go nowhere – and buy Pyongyang time to perfect the very nuclear weapons we are desperately trying to rid from our world.

My advice to the Trump administration: take your victory lap while you can, because the North Korean crisis is far from over. In fact, it most likely is just getting started.

Thankfully, a quick look at the calendar tells us current events will soon test this detente to see if it is actually real or just fake news being put out by Kim. 

On March 18, the Paralympics in South Korea will come to an end. Soon after that, America and South Korea will announce the dates for their annual military exercises.

The biggest of the U.S.-South Korean military exercise is known as Foal Eagle. It will include 300,000 South Korean troops and something that North Korea has objected to strenuously in the past.

Seoul and Washington should make one thing crystal clear: these exercises will not be canceled under any circumstances. North Korea trains its forces all winter long, and while the Communist nation did scale back its training cycle, it did not cancel military exercises. South Korea and America could do the same, but North Korea should never, ever, be rewarded for coming to the negotiating table.

If – and it's a really big if – North Korea does not throw a fit and start testing missiles or nuclear weapons immediately before the exercises begin, Washington and Seoul must continue to probe North Korea’s intentions, this time in direct talks.

But Kim could demand a bribe before we even begin negotiations. We must be leery and walk away from the bargaining table if Kim demands payments, sanctions relief, food or fuel supplies for simply talking.

Our maximum pressure campaign on North Korea must continue. No rogue regime should be rewarded for doing the right thing – and we should back away if North Korea looks for concessions right at the outset.

If talks press forward after several standard “getting to know you” meetings, America and its allies must see what North Korea is really willing to barter away when it comes to its missile and nuclear programs.

In the past, Pyongyang would string along U.S. and South Korean negotiators in meeting after meeting after meeting that never achieved any results. All the while, the Kim family would continue to refine its nuclear and missile technology. We simply cannot make the same mistake and go through this again.

If we follow the above approach, we should know very quickly what North Korea’s strategy is – most likely a play for time to ensure it has a viable nuclear weapon that can hit the U.S. homeland.

My advice to the Trump administration: take your victory lap while you can, because the North Korean crisis is far from over. In fact, it most likely is just getting started.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.