As President Trump prepares for his summit with Kim Jong-un, there is no telling how it will go, but go it will.
The president has chosen to break the cycle of lower-level meetings that result in North Korean promises regarding their nuclear program followed by American largesse followed by North Korea breaking its promises.
President Obama changed the cycle a bit by refusing to engage at all — “strategic patience” he called it — just waiting for the regime to collapse or for his term to be over, whichever came first. What we are left with is a North Korea that has mastered nuclear technology and is working on miniaturizing a bomb to fit on the ballistic missiles he is pursuing.
It’s hard to see the downside for the U.S. in President Trump’s decision to meet Kim in Singapore. We already have three American hostages back in exchange for an Oval Office photo-op for Kim Yong-chol, North Korean intelligence agent posing as a diplomat. An unpleasant moment, but not devastating.
And remaining in our pocket is America’s “trump card” so to speak. More on that in a minute.
Conventional wisdom says Kim wants his nuclear capability to ensure that he is not invaded and deposed by the U.S. Having seen the U.S. overthrow non-nuclear Saddam Hussein and non-nuclear Moammar Qaddafi, it certainly could make sense that nuclear weapons would make Kim feel invincible. But only if that’s his greatest fear.
On the other hand, perhaps the nuclear program is the gift he gives to his military to ensure that they don’t overthrow him. He is clearly worried about the possibility and moves carefully accordingly.
He traveled to China for his meetings in Beijing in a train, lest his plane be shot down or hijacked. Last week, he fired his top three generals – and it wasn’t the first purge.
In 2014, O Sang Hon, the deputy public security minister, was executed by flamethrower. In 2017, Kim removed five senior military officers and had them killed with anti-aircraft guns according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency citing a National Intelligence Service briefing. Other military officers and various family members have been removed under less colorful circumstances.
“Kim Jong-un is deeply distrustful of his generals,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “He knows that they can challenge his rule, and he keeps them under control.”
Perhaps only until he bargains away their nuclear program.
This is North Korea’s reality and America’s leverage.
Assuming North Korea actually does perfect nuclear weapon miniaturization and mounts it on a better ballistic missile than they have thus far demonstrated, what can Kim do with it? What political benefit does it bring?
North Korea has primarily threatened South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Kim has acted militarily against the South fairly often and fired ballistic missiles across the Japanese mainland. He can probably continue conventional military harassment against his nearest neighbors, but one day they may decide retaliation is necessary. Will he pull out his nuclear weapon?
Only if he wants to die.
America’s “Trump card” is that the use of a nuclear weapon by North Korea — and maybe the use of conventionally armed ballistic missiles — is a “one-off.” He could do it once, but there is nothing North Korea can do that would protect it from the retaliation the U.S. would be sure to invoke to protect or avenge its allies. Or itself.
It would not be a case of “tit for tat.” It would not be a calculation of how many allies die vs how many North Koreans die. It would be lights-out in North Korea, not that they have very many. In fact, contemplating the use of nuclear weapons/ballistic missiles makes Kim precisely the vulnerable ruler he claims he is trying to avoid being by having them.
The good news is that this is all well-known in advance. If Kim claims his fear is of the U.S., he must be made to understand that the best way to avoid America’s wrath is to stop threatening us and our allies.
The president has said regime change in North Korea is not America’s goal and, awful as the regime is, it is not our job to replace it unilaterally or by force. But avenging Kim’s use of nuclear weapons would, indeed, be our job.
It is North Korea, not the U.S., that is walking on the wire. If Kim thinks North Korea’s future has something to do with economic development, relations (or unification) with South Korea or a return to the civilized world, absolute and verifiable removal of his nuclear capabilities would be the ticket. President Trump can offer that.
The only worry for the allies is that the U.S. may pay Kim before he delivers. We’ve been down that road before.
On the other hand, if Kim is really worried that his generals will make him pay for giving up the nuclear arsenal, we can’t help him. Then, for the security of Asia and the future security of the U.S., he will be sanctioned and squeezed as far as the eye can see.