If CIA Director Mike Pompeo wins Senate confirmation to become secretary of state, as expected, one of his first challenges will be working to make President Trump’s planned meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a success. That may prove to be mission impossible.
An obvious question arises: Is North Korea responding favorably to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, or trying to buy time for its nuclear program and wrest concessions from negotiations? The answer is likely both.
Feeling the heat, North Korean leaders hope a show of compromise will weaken America’s commitment to the debilitating economic sanctions and robust military deterrence now putting severe pressure on the Communist nation.
Like his grandfather and father who ruled the North before him, Kim Jong Un hopes to convince the international community to provide aid or release funds by pretending to want peace. Such assistance could actually finance the North’s final drive toward deliverable nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration has expended much effort convincing other nations of the urgency of a maximum pressure approach against North Korea. What better way for the North to upend that effort than to convince the world, and perhaps even President Trump himself, that maximum pressure is no longer necessary?
Sensibly, U.S. officials – including incoming Secretary of State Pompeo – have indicated that maximum pressure will continue for now.
The Trump administration faces a daunting balancing act. It hopes diplomacy will buy the United States more time and another avenue to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. But it must prevent North Korea from gaining anything through diplomacy – time, cover, favorable media coverage, or concessions – unless the North denuclearizes.
The North’s charm campaign began at the Olympics, where a smiling Kim Yo Jong, who is Kim Jong Un’s sister, represented the country. Stoking dreams of a unified Korea and playing on desires for peace, she sought to portray North Korea as a responsible and reasonable member of the international community.
Suddenly, North and South were talking – not just about the Olympics, but about denuclearization. And the South was conveying the North’s alleged willingness to discuss surrendering nuclear weapons in exchange for a U.S. security guarantee and the normalization of relations.
The upcoming meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un – assuming it takes place – will give North Korea a historic chance to seduce the media, and could easily lend the brutal, bellicose Kim legitimacy and stature. Just being in the same room with the president of the United States, surrounded by journalists from around the world, would be a publicity triumph for Kim.
North Korea has a track record of finessing the United States with the promise of negotiations and the pretense of agreements. Maximum pressure was adopted in the first place because North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs had advanced alarmingly while diplomacy and outreach were tried.
Vacillation and incrementalism in the imposition of sanctions and naïve faith in negotiations were recurring features of U.S. policy and were especially evident during the Obama years.
No matter how many nuclear and missile tests North Korea carried out, and no matter how many times North Korea backed out of negotiations or violated previously negotiated terms, the Obama/Clinton/Kerry team indicated that compromise and aid were still possible if talks ensued.
The Obama administration was willing to pay a high price for a negotiated solution and began by seeking normalization of relations and promised recognition of the cruel North Korean regime’s legitimacy – if only progress was made on the nuclear issue.
And under President Obama, the U.S. preemptively offered “no first use” of nuclear weapons and refused to fully enforce sanctions against the North that it supposedly endorsed – but was unable to get North Korea to return to six party talks on nuclear disarmament.
In 2012, North Korea did attend bilateral talks that led to a “Leap Day” agreement in which the United States pledged 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for a freeze on nuclear and missile tests. But the agreement fell apart as North Korea prepared more nuclear tests, declared its nuclear weapons non-negotiable, threatened America with destruction, and rattled South Korea with cyberattacks and military provocations.
Indeed, there has not been a correlation between engagement efforts and more cooperative North Korean behavior. Nuclear tests and threats by the North have often occurred at the very time of diplomatic outreach.
Although North Korea could conceivably give up its nuclear program in order to save the Kim regime, it is more likely that the North will never give up the nuclear force it has worked so hard to develop, because the force is critical to the survival of the regime and of Kim himself.
Acquiescing to denuclearization would undermine the ideas that North Korea is under constant existential threat from geopolitical enemies, that it has a mission to unify the Korean Peninsula and export its ideology, and that Kim is the savior of his people and the only one who can carry out that mission. North Korea’s nuclear program serves its domestic propaganda, and its defensive and offensive aims.
If North Korea nevertheless gets serious about terms required for the verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and missiles, we’d better beware of the terms. And we had better answer the following questions:
Should we accept a peace treaty that requires the U.S. to withdraw troops from South Korea, thereby leaving the region and the United States itself vulnerable?
Should we normalize relations with a regime with human rights violations that are so encompassing and severe that the regime itself could be said to be running a concentration camp, thereby consigning the North Korean people to their awful fate?
Should we give aid to a dictator who will use the assistance to shore up his inner circle?
Should we focus only on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs when it is also a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, exchanging chemical weapons technology with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to help him wage war against his own people?
Unless North Korea earns trust, the United States should not only continue maximum pressure; it should increase penalties on every entity that enables the regime, including major Chinese banks.
With China intent on image-building, we should expose the devastating human toll of its support for North Korea. The best way to maintain the peace is to weaken the North Korean regime to make its nuclear program impossible to sustain, and heighten our military defenses and resolve.