Reality TV Show: Trump vs. North Korea. But What About America?
Nuclear diplomacy is a bit harder than running a hotel or golf course.
May I present North Korea’s Supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. After the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, it wasn’t all that clear that Kim Jong-Un would inherit his father’s leadership mantle. He was an inexperienced, Swiss-educated millennial and the youngest son in a culture that favors the eldest.
So Kim Jong-Un went about consolidating power the old-fashioned way: by killing and purging scores of senior North Korean officials (300, by one count). He even killed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was widely considered a favorite to succeed the old man.
This dictator act hardly raises eyebrows on people who follow these things. Perhaps more remarkable was the response of our American president, the leader of the free world, keeper of that shining light on the hill. Here’s what Donald Trump said:
You gotta give him credit. How many young guys–he was like 26 or 25 when his father died–take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games…
That was no mob boss talking (at least not yet…we’ll see what the Mueller investigation reveals). That was uttered by a man who is running feet-first into a high-stakes poker game (if it comes off) in which America’s alliances, its leadership in the world and the destinies of millions of global citizens are all on the table.
What’s In it for Trump?
Trump isn’t the first US president to be invited to sit down with a North Korean dictator; he’s the first one to accept. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were all wary of direct negotiations without strategic partners, and giving away the prestige of a presidential visit to a small impoverished nation whose leader had a big mouth.
President Obama: “We’re not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don’t get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow get your way.”
Trump’s recent tweets praising Kim suggest he’s desperate for some kind of deal–anything!–that would bring positive news headlines and a hit the pause button on a myriad of domestic corruption scandals. Maybe Trump believes that being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize could somehow negate all those guilty pleas and cooperation agreements acquired by the special counsel.
It was President Obama who told Trump about the latest development in Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Last Nov. 28, the North Korean regime boasted of its successful testing of the Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This weapons could theoretically hit any target in the US.
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, is a warmonger: he’s urged Israel to deploy first-strikes on Iran and has proposed regime change in both Iran and North Korea. The man makes Dick Cheney seem like a hippie.
Of great concern to peaceful Americans is that Bolton has Trump’s ear in devising negotiation messaging if and when Trump and Kim Jong-Un do face each other. Bolton’s public stance on North Korea is quite simple: The US cannot live in a world in which North Korea possesses any nuclear weapons. Get rid of them or the US will be compelled to take military action. It doesn’t leave much negotiating wiggle room.
Bolton demands “denuclearization.” That word has made the rounds. Hold that thought.
What Kim Wants
What keeps Kim Jong-Un up at night are his country’s survival and the United Nations-imposed sanctions that are crippling his people’s quality of life.
Since September, the United Nations has banned about 90 percent of key North Korean exports, such as coal iron ore, seafood and textiles. Fishermen are deserting their vessels and factories are closing due to lack of raw materials. The oil and gas it is allowed to import, mostly from China, fuels just about half of the country’s vehicles. Food and medicine shortages are rampant.
Nevertheless, North Koreans have endured famine many times before. Surviving them is worn as a badge of pride. And don’t forget: a lot of goods can be smuggled across the river between North Korea and China, its closest ally.
Much more important, Kim Jong-Un links his country’s very survival to its joining the exclusive group of nuclear states.
Denuclearization is off the table.
So What’s the Deal?
Here’s what keeps me up at night: The selling out of our allies in any deal with Kim Jong-Un.
Exhibit A: Donald Trump ranting about our close and very strategic ally South Korea.
How long will we go on defending South Korea without payment…When will they start paying us? We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them. We get nothing compared to the cost of this.
The threat of North Korea’s ICBMs reaching America (perhaps) is something that would rattle Trump’s cage. In keeping with his “America First” philosophy, narrow US interests would replace a longstanding American foreign policy of treating threats to our homeland and our allies equally.
With the midterm elections looming, Trump feels the urgency to juice his approval ratings. With South Korean president Moon Jae-in closely involved, it might be difficult for Trump to leave South Korea standing at the altar.
That leaves shutting down the ICBM program in exchange for sanctions relief.
With Bolton on the loose, it could be worse.
But realistically, expect a lot of smiles and a favorable news cycle, post summit (if it happens, of course). Then both parties will back away.
America, indeed the world, will await to tune in to the next episode.