Limited Trump-Kim nuke deal possible -- War could kill millions

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The collapse of the summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without an agreement moving the North closer to denuclearization undoubtedly is a big disappointment for the U.S. president.

Trump – who has long claimed to be a master negotiator – has invested a considerable amount of personal capital, time and prestige in his effort to reacha denuclearization dealwith Kim. The American president has traveled to the other side of the world twice – to Singapore in June and to Vietnam this week – to meet with the North Korean leader.

Ever self-confident about his own abilities, Trump very likely believed he could fly back home with some kind of signed document – whether it be a binding agreement, a detailed roadmap, or a statement of principles – showing significant progress in getting North Korea to take steps to get rid of its nuclear weapons and the ability to make more.


The fact that no agreement was reached in the Hanoi talks – which ended abruptly and earlier than scheduled – will provide more ammunition for President Trump’s critics.

These critics contend Trump acted recklessly, impulsively and naively by reaching out to Kim with the unrealistic goal of getting the dictator to abandon weapons that his country has spent many years and enormous sums of money developing.

This view, however, is mistaken. Nobody said talking with the North Koreans would be smooth and painless. Indeed, it would be more surprising if there weren’t any obstacles or breakdowns along the road.

Importantly, President Trump proved his critics wrong when he walked out of the summit rather than giving in to Kim’s unreasonable demand that the U.S. lift all economic sanctions on the North without first getting Kim to make a meaningful commitment to denuclearization.

"Sometimes you have to walk,” President Trump said at a news conference in Hanoi on Thursday, shortly before he left the Vietnamese capital emptyhanded for the long flight back to Washington.

Concerned that the North Koreans were asking for too much in sanctions relief, Trump wisely decided it would be best to cut the negotiations short and reassess for a later day.

U.S. national security interests are ill-served by unnecessarily tying a new peace and security regime to the aspirational goal of denuclearization – a goal that will take perhaps 15 to 20 years to achieve if it can be achieved at all.

North Korean diplomats can be hardnosed, defiant and at times unmovable. Yet none of these realities is an excuse that would warrant the Trump administration giving up on a diplomatic process that could very well lead to a vastly improved relationship between two sworn enemies.

President Trump appears to recognize the strategic opportunity in front of him. He told reporters that the personal rapport he has established with Kim will keep denuclearization talks alive despite the setback in Hanoi.

Indeed, Trump referred to that rapport during his post-summit press conference. “There’s a warmth that we have and I hope that stays,” he said.

Many in the media will judge the Trump-Kim summit as a failure, due in large part to the breakdown on the nuclear question and the seemingly irreconcilable positions of Washington and Pyongyang.

But fixating on the result of this particular summit misses the forest for the trees. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that for the first time since the Korean Peninsula was divided in two after World War II, the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea are talking to each other directly and may have developed mutual respect.

Critics of President Trump’s diplomatic strategy callously dismiss all of the niceties between Trump and Kim as devoid of substance. What is a good personal relationship, they ask, if the North refuses to eliminate its nuclear stockpile, its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, its centrifuges, or its ballistic missiles?

The answer is straightforward and crucial: The better the relationship and personal chemistry between the two leaders, the more likely some agreement can eventually be reached and the less likely an armed conflict will erupt.

And make no mistake about it: An armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be the bloodiest war the world has seen since WWII if nuclear weapons are used.

If Kim succeeded in hitting the U.S., South Korea, or Japan with even a handful of missiles armed with nuclear warheads we could see millions of civilians killed.

While the U.S. has the capacity to destroy North Korea many times over in retaliation, the humanitarian, economic, and political damage would be so severe that it would give even the most strident interventionist second thoughts. For the U.S., pragmatic diplomacy coupled with deterrence is the best policy option available

But preventing this worst-case outcome is no small matter. If Trump and Kim manage to keep their relationship on a solid footing, the possibility of a dangerous miscalculation or at outright war will be reduced exponentially.

Over the past 25 years, Washington’s North Korea policy was designed around a basic formula: Unless the communist dictatorship delivered all its nuclear weapons to the international community on a silver platter – no questions asked – it would remain a rogue state isolated from its neighbors. Peace on the Korean Peninsula would have to wait until the North surrendered its nuclear capability.

This strategy of advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament by North Korea has been one of the most abysmal failures in the history of U.S. foreign policy. It has resulted in neither peace nor denuclearization. In fact, as the years went by without progress, both goals became more difficult to achieve.

To his enormous credit, President Trump has recognized that the old paradigm has not only been ineffective, but has unnecessarily delayed the day when peace on the Korean Peninsula can be achieved.

Pressure begets pressure and hostility begets hostility. When two countries with nuclear weapons begin trading threatening insults, any small opening available to address their grievances can quickly close.

We’ve come a long way from the time when Kim was threatening to attack the U.S. and President Trump derisively called Kim “little rocket man” and said in August 2017: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States” or “they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before.”

U.S. national security interests are ill-served by unnecessarily tying a new peace and security regime to the aspirational goal of denuclearization – a goal that will take perhaps 15 to 20 years to achieve if it can be achieved at all.

While many of President Trump’s critics are sure to argue that he must continue demanding “full, complete and verifiable denuclearization” by North Korea before making any concessions on sanctions or other issues, that’s easier said than done.

Kim has made clear that he wants concessions from the U.S. along the long path toward the North’s nuclear disarmament. And he most likely wants to keep at least a small nuclear arsenal to deter a U.S. attack.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment has a consistent record of failure in getting North Korea to denuclearize by making demands the North refuses to go along with. A more modest agreement that severely limits but does not eliminate North Korea’s nukes and gets rid of the nation’s capacity to build more nuclear weapons may wind up becoming America’s fallback position in the future.

Ultimately, the negotiations in Hanoi this week weren’t about President Trump’s skills as a dealmaker or Kim Jong Un’s character. They were about shaking up the status quo, leaving the old way of doing business behind, and strengthening a diplomatic process that lessens the threat of a horrific war.

For this reason, the progress President Trump has made establishing a relationship with Kim Jong Un serves the cause of peace on the Korean Peninsula and enhances the security of the American people.


North Korea’s denuclearization will be a long-term effort requiring unlimited patience and perseverance. In the end, it might very well turn out to be impossible.

But in the meantime, there is no reason that two enemies can’t begin closing the chapter on 70-plus years of adversarial relations that began with the Korean War and work to prevent a far deadlier sequel to that war.