How Trump Can Avoid Being Played by North Korea


In a shocking development, it has been revealed that North Korean strongman, Kim Jong-un, has extended an offer to meet with President Donald J. Trump as soon as possible. For their part, the South Koreans are resolutely supportive of the North Korean olive branch. On Twitter, President Trump announced: “Meeting being planned!”

Amid the surprise, people seem to have taken leave of their senses. This is, after all, the North Korean regime we are talking about and not some intransigent trading partner.

The Kim regime is ideologically wedded to the notion of achieving nuclear weapons capability as a means not only of ensuring regime survival, but also of forcibly reuniting the Korean peninsula.

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According to reports, it was not President Trump but young Kim who offered to engage in talks. While some may view this as a capitulation on the part of the North Korean strongman (and, for everyone’s sake, I truly hope that it is), I  remain skeptical. Frankly, the fact that Kim appears to be backing down is not exactly heartening. You see, after 30 years of engaging in this dance with the North Koreans over their nuclear arsenal, the Trump administration appears to be willing to repeat history. The North Koreans have a long record of using endless negotiations—that ultimately go nowhere—as a means of buying time in order to achieve some milestone in their ongoing nuclear weapons arsenal development.

Kim’s offer appears to have caught the Trump Administration by surprise, which is likely why the White House had the South Korean national security team that was visiting Washington, D.C. make the announcement in the Rose Garden.

Understand: the South Korean regime is highly liberal and committed to avoiding any form of confrontation with their wayward brothers to the north—even if it means looking the other way while North Korea finalizes the development of their nuclear arsenal (which Pyongyang most certainly will).

The worst thing for North Korea would be a sustained pressure campaign of the sort that the Trump administration was mounting against it these last several months. Presently, the United States has considerable assets operating in-theater: some B-2 stealth bombers; F-22 Raptors; and special forces training daily to surge across the border and conduct covert strikes against the North Koreans. The North Koreans know all of this and were likely concerned that President Trump was readying a preemptive strike. So, young Kim did as his father and grandfather taught him: manipulate Western weakness to engage in a classic diplomatic holding action. Kim needs those U.S. forces to stand down, so calling for talks is the best way forward for him.

The CIA believes North Korea is roughly 18 months away from acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. It already has functioning nuclear warheads—and the ability to miniaturize them. Time is all that the Kim regime needs to achieve its last goal: a functional ICBM. From that point, the only thing that the North will have to do is to mass-produce enough nuclear ICBMs to provide an effective deterrent. And, at that point, all that the West has to rest on is the hope that Kim Jong-un has no greater plans to use those nuclear weapons in an offensive capacity to forcibly reunite South Korea under his control.

Whatever his intentions, Kim appears to have played his hand masterfully. For his part, Trump has played his limited hand extremely well (given how bad of a hand his predecessor had left him). Mind you, this is not to say that Trump cannot (or will not) be able turn the tables on young Kim at some point. Now that Kim has extended an invitation to President Trump, the American leader must go—especially with South Korea so clearly supportive of this move. It would be bad form for the U.S. president to decline. However, the United States should not give ground on any issue until real concessions by the North have been made. For too long, the North Korean leadership has offered endless talks in exchange for real concessions from the West. This cannot continue.

Before going into the meeting, the United States must insist that it conduct its joint training exercise with South Korea (something that the North has been complaining about for several months). Then, the president should spend every second from now until his meeting flooding South Korea with U.S. forces, in order to signal his resolve. Once at the meeting with Kim, the president must insist that no aid will be given or concession made lest the North publicly vows to denuclearize—and allows for unfettered international inspectors to verify that the North has, in fact, denuclearized. If the Kim regime disagrees with any aspect of this proposal, the United States should continue readying for war.

It’s important to note that the president has insisted that the North not engage in any missile tests between now and the meeting (which has yet to be scheduled). While this may seem like skillful gamesmanship on the part of the president, this is not a difficult concession for Kim Jong-un. Traditionally, North Korea stands down on its military exercises during the winter months. It is likely that whatever missile tests have been prepared would not begin until mid-April, anyway, judging from previous North Korean missile launches. So, should Kim agree not to do any missile tests for now, that does not necessarily indicate a real change of heart in the North Korean leadership.

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In the event that the Kim regime does agree with President Trump, and if the North actually denuclearizes, another problem remains: China.

Tom Rogan believes that China compelled North Korea to come to the table after President Trump enacted tariffs against steel and aluminum (which theoretically threatened China’s economy). Even if Rogan is correct, should North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, the impetus for American forces to remain on the Korean peninsula would evaporate. Once that reason is gone, it appears inevitable that the South Koreans would ask their American partners to leave. And, after American forces leave, the ethnic Han leadership in Pyongyang and Seoul would begin coordinating with the ethnic Han leadership of Beijing—thereby creating a Chinese zone of control extending across the entirety of the Eurasian east coast.

In other words, it would be a major geostrategic blow to the United States in its ongoing competition with China.

Remember, the elites of both North and South Korea have an affinity for China because both share a deep animus (and fear) over a resurgent Japan (because Korea was brutalized by the Japanese Empire as recently as World War II).

The Trump Administration should not rest on its laurels: the North Koreans have a long history of using diplomacy to buy time for their nuclear program. This is likely no different. The worst thing Trump could do would be to replicate either the Clinton Administration’s deal with North Korea or the Obama Administration’s deal with Iran over their nuclear programs. President Trump must meet with Kim, but he must also continue his pressure campaign until it is proven that the North has abandoned its quest for nuclear arms. What’s more, Trump must be willing to use force against Pyongyang, should they drag their feet and continue building a weapons arsenal that could threaten the United States (which, they are).

Trump could go down in history as the president who made the greatest peace deal in the last two or three decades. On the other hand, it may be that we have just ensured the arrival of a nuclear-armed North Korea—and a major war thereafter. Even if the president does manage to get a deal with North Korea, this will merely anticipate a larger reduction of American influence in Asia at a time when the United States is attempting to challenge the rising Chinese regional hegemony.

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