When US President Donald Trump announced on March 8 his intention to meet with Kim Jong-un, I wrote that the leaders of South and North Korea had “snookered the credulous American president into a high-profile summit that is likely to end in disaster one way or another.” A lot has happened since.
Kim has let it be known that he is willing to discuss denuclearisation and a peace treaty to end the Korean War — without insisting on a pullout of US forces. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has journeyed to Pyongyang to meet with Kim. And on Friday Kim announced that he will end nuclear and missile tests and shut down the site where the nuclear tests have been conducted.
In light of all this news, a reader writes to ask: “Just wondering if you are going to update your March 8 ‘snooker’ piece.” Yes, I am. Here’s the update: Kim is a more adept con man, and Trump an easier mark, than even I had imagined.
These are not “breakthroughs” signalling peace in our time. These are indications of how skilfully Kim is manoeuvring to preserve his nuclear programme while relaxing international sanctions and dissipating Trump’s “fire and fury.”
Trump is the one who has made a significant concession by becoming the first sitting US president willing to meet with the leader of North Korea — an act that will inherently legitimise the ruler of the world’s most despotic regime and feed its propaganda that even the world’s sole superpower feels compelled to bow before its mighty nuclear arsenal. What is Trump getting in return? So far, not even freedom for the three American hostages in North Korea — although Kim hints that this small concession will come.
Trump seems to think that much bigger concessions are on the way, too. On Wednesday he tweeted: “Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearisation will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”
In reality, as numerous experts have pointed out, “denuclearisation” doesn’t mean the same thing to Kim that it does to Trump. For Kim, it’s a code word for the United States withdrawing its security guarantee from South Korea, allowing the North to bully and possibly even swallow its neighbour. A “peace treaty” would advance this goal. Why would the United States need to protect the South if it’s “at peace” with the North?
Ah, but hasn’t Kim now said he is willing to allow US troops to remain in the South even after an agreement? Yes, and so did his father Kim Jong Il in the 1990s. The elder Kim said North Korea would be amenable to US troops staying “as a peacekeeping force in Korea, instead of a hostile force against the North.” It’s hard to know exactly what that means, but it suggests a small, symbolic, lightly armed presence that cannot credibly deter North Korea.
Kim’s latest pledge — to stop nuclear and missile testing — is not, as Trump tweeted, “big progress,” because he has said it before and it can easily be reversed. Explaining this move, Kim claimed that his nuclear weapons programme is complete and doesn’t need any more tests. Even if that’s not true, there may be a practical reason for closing the nuclear test site — repeated nuclear explosions deep in Mount Mantap may be bringing it close to collapse. The junior Kim is again following the example of his father, who in 2008 blew up the cooling tower of a nuclear facility to show he was serious about talks. Only he wasn’t.
None of this kabuki theatre means that Kim is about to give up a nuclear weapons programme his family has spent decades and precious billions of dollars developing. Kim saw that the United States overthrew Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussain after they gave up their weapons of mass destruction. He is not about to emulate their unfortunate example — especially not when the new national security adviser, John Bolton, has advocated a preventive war against North Korea.
Caution is in order, but Trump abounds with credulity. Axios’ Jonathan Swan writes that the president has given up his naive and grandiose hopes that he alone can bring peace to the Middle East. Now the president thinks he alone can bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. According to Axios’s reporting, he thinks: “Just get me in the room with the guy [Kim Jong Un] and I’ll figure it out.”
Uh-huh. Trump knows next to nothing about Korea. (On Tuesday he said, “People don’t realise the Korean War has not ended,” meaning he just found out.) He has set expectations sky-high and, vastly overconfident, he is going to parlay with a wily dictator who has played him like a Stradivarius. What could possibly go wrong?
Kim may be evil, but he’s not stupid — or suicidal. He’s stringing Trump along, making vague promises that he has no intention of keeping. And Trump, the rube who thinks he’s a sophisticate, shows every sign of falling for the bait.
— Washington Post
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.