North Korea: Trump’s dilemma


Korean diplomatic stage is brightening again. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North's leader Kim Jong-un will meet in Pyongyang in the third week of this month for their third summit this year. This is to discuss "practical measures to denuclearize" the Korean Peninsula.

According to the North's official media, Kim has reaffirmed his commitment to “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and the suspension of all future long-range missile tests.”

Music to the ears of US President Donald Trump who was feeling frustrated with a lack of progress in denuclearization to which both he and Kim had committed in the joint agreement issued at their historic Singapore summit on June 12.

Though the phrase, “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is repeated thrice in the Singapore agreement, there are no specific details of how it should be done. There is no time schedule either.

Trump, seeing no moves on disarmament, last month canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang. Intelligence reports suggesting North Korea has continued to develop its long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons capabilities have only deepened US suspicions.

Though the North had dismantled its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri and ballistic missile test facility at Iha-ri, the two sides have been stuck in a stalemate since the Singapore declaration. Will this month’s summit break the impasse?

Signs are not very encouraging. Though Kim makes all the right noises about denuclearization, it is very obvious that the North and US have two different things in mind when they talk about the idea. To the US, it means Kim giving up all his nuclear arsenal in an act of supreme self-abnegation. It also means the North allowing international inspectors to check that it is keeping its word.

What Kim is seeking are mutual steps to get rid of nuclear weapons, including the US taking down the nuclear umbrella it has put up over South Korea and Japan. He would also like an end to US commitment to “extended deterrence” in South Korea and Japan — the threat of nuclear retaliation if its allies in Asia come under attack from North Korea. Kim also seeks an official end to the Korean War. The two Koreas are still technically at war.

Even in the unlikely event of US agreeing to all these demands, it is not certain that Kim will give up all of his weapons and nuclear material. At the most, he might agree to dismantle some of his weapons and facilities well before Trump’s first official term ends. Suppose he throws away his nuclear shield believing Trump’s assurances, what is the guarantee that he will not meet the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi? Trump or his successor can always go back on their word.

Unfortunately, the key player in this diplomatic drama is no longer Trump but Kim. Trump was never in a position to treat and threaten Kim the way George W. Bush did Saddam because Kim has something Saddam didn’t have. But after exchanging explosive words and threatening “little rocket man” with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in the early months of his administration, Trump went to the other extreme of treating him as a peer force on the international stage. Now to go back to pre-Singapore confrontation will be admitting that he had committed a major diplomatic faux pas.

Trump might still get his Nobel Peace Prize. After all, it has gone to some very undeserving or less deserving persons or to those who totally proved unworthy of the honor later in their career. Kim may be worried about the effect of crippling sanctions, led by the US, on the North Korean economy. But the kind of complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean program will elude the peninsula even if there is a sequel to Singapore.