Max Boot: Trump snookered by both Koreas into meeting Kim
South Korean conservatives have had two nightmare scenarios about President Donald Trump: He would embroil their country in a ruinous war with North Korea, or sell out their interests to the North.
Trump's first year in office lent credence to the first concern. He threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea; called its dictator, Kim Jong-un, “Little Rocket Man;” and bragged that his “nuclear button” was much bigger than Kim's. Administration officials claimed deterrence couldn't work and discussed a possible “bloody nose” strike that could trigger a nuclear war.
Now, in a head-snapping display of incoherence, Trump has agreed to meet Kim, giving the planet's worst human-rights abuser what he most wants: international legitimacy. Kim will be able to tell his people that America's president is kowtowing to him out of fear of North Korea's nuclear arsenal.
As recently as August, Trump tweeted about North Korea: “Talking is not the answer!” He was absolutely right. For decades, North Korea has used bait-and-switch tactics, staging provocations interspersed with offers to negotiate. Its end game has always been the same: Getting paid for not staging further provocations. In other words, it was attempting blackmail.
That paid off during the “sunshine policy” years, 1998-2008. Progressive governments in Seoul delivered about $8 billion in economic assistance and got nothing in return. North Korea reneged on its 1994 pledge to the U.S. to freeze nuclear development and instead raced ahead. South Korea's current president, Moon Jae-in, who was a top aide to “sunshine policy” President Roh Moo-hyun, evidently has not lost faith in negotiations. From his perspective, it makes sense to do anything possible to stop Trump from starting Korean War II.
Moon and Kim have, for their own reasons, snookered the credulous U.S. president into a high-profile summit likely to end in disaster, one way or another. Kim is evidently willing to suspend nuclear and missile tests for now — a minimal, easily reversed concession, mostly likely made only to buy time to fit a nuclear warhead on an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S.
The South claims the North is willing to discuss denuclearization, but it likely will only do so on terms the U.S. should never accept. Kim may offer to give up his nukes for U.S. forces' pullout from South Korea and a signed peace treaty. Trump may imagine that as a big “win” for him, but only because he and his administration's senior members know nothing of North Korea.
If Trump bothered to talk to North Korea experts, he would undoubtedly learn that Kim's regime is pursuing its age-old aim of pushing U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula, enabling Pyongyang to militarily coerce Seoul into unification on the North's terms: extending its Stalinist dictatorship across the entire peninsula. At minimum, the North hopes for relaxation of sanctions just beginning to bite.
Talking to North Korea may make sense, but at a lower level while maintaining “maximum pressure” sanctions. Eventually, it may be willing to bargain in earnest. But there is no reason to think that time is now, and much reason to assume that Trump, as usual, doesn't know what he is doing.
Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.