America’s North Korea Strategy is a Disaster


Pyongyang remains on the cusp of having a fully functional nuclear weapons capability–one that will directly threaten its neighbors and the United States itself. After several months of back-and-forth over the issue, American President Donald J. Trump consented to meeting with the wayward North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore on June 12.

Taken off-guard by Trump’s initial acceptance two months ago, the young Kim played along, looking for a way to gain the upper hand. By the end of May, President Trump opted to abandon the talks, disbelieving that Kim was either sincere or even capable of following through on the United States’ unflagging commitment to de-nuclearization on the peninsula.

In a stunning reversal, President Trump chose to reengage with the North Koreans, and has once again committed himself to meeting Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Plans are now moving forward forthwith to complete a framework for the slap-dash summit. The proper way to look at the Trump foreign policy toward North Korea has always been with hopeful skepticism.

Now, however, I believe it is turning into a disaster, as Angelo Codevilla recently argued in the Asia Times Online:

“Trump may be, if anything, more vulnerable than his predecessors to declaring victory prematurely, to confusing process with substance, the prospects of success with success itself – the sizzle with the steak.”

I am always hopeful that peace will prevail, yet I am continually cognizant of Man’s own failings–particularly the failings within a thugocracy like that of the Kim Regime. Trump was correct to call Kim’s bluff by declaring his intention to meet. He was also correct to call off the summit, when it appeared that a) Pyongyang was not being serious in their claims to favor de-nuclearization and b) South Korea, America’s erstwhile principal ally when dealing with North Korea, was far too eager for a deal with their wayward brothers to the north.

The scent of desperation in high-stakes negotiations is a killer. Trump sensed it and he knew that if he detected it, the blood-thirsty North Koreans, like a pack of wolves, smelled it as well–and were using it to their supreme advantage when dealing with the South Koreans.

Yet, it remains inexplicable why the president has reengaged with the North after having only just abandoned the talks little more than a week ago. This is especially perplexing, since nothing of substance has changed from when Trump terminated the meeting in late May to when he announced he would be meeting with Kim again.

The Status Quo is Still the Status Quo

Think about it: Pyongyang claims that it highly values meeting with the American leadership to discuss a meaningful deal. However, on the issue of paying for the pending summit in Singapore–a minuscule though symbolic amount of money–the North refuses to pay for a single cent of the forthcoming summit.

Meanwhile, Singapore announced that they will not pay for the summit either (Kim Jong-un wants to have U.S. taxpayers foot his bill to stay at a $6,000 per-night hotel in Singapore). You and I are on the hook for this vanity exercise.

It might seem like a small, petty issue. But, it isn’t. If the North Korean leadership is serious about making a fundamental change in their relationship with the rest of the world, then one would think they’d offer to pay for at least half of the summit. Instead, North Korean representatives insist that they will not pay because it flies in the face of North Korean standards and practices.

Thus, standard operating procedures are afoot. This does not bode well for the American cause. The entire purpose of these talks, at least as President Trump and his counterparts in both South and North Korea keep claiming, is to upend the status quo.

Instead, each leader is falling into disturbingly familiar patterns. The Kim dynasty promises to give into every single American demand–at a later, unspecified, distant time, of course–while expecting to receive immediate concessions from the American side.

The South Korean leadership is so frightened of the consequences of any potential conflict with their North Korean neighbors, that they commit to peace at any price, even at the sake of dishonor (which, as Churchill proved, might yet still herald war only with the added blow of losing one’s honor).

Meanwhile, the distant Americans are so self-consumed and its leadership so politically motivated, that it makes concessions to the North in exchange for empty promises and outright lies from the North. Pyongyang walks away with a series of tangible and moral diplomatic victories while the West has been had.

This has been the experience of every American president when it comes to dealing with nukes on the Korean Peninsula going back to George H.W. Bush, as Angelo Codevilla outlines in his recent excellent piece at The Asia Times Online.

Yeah, But It Might Be Different…

Of course, it is very possible that Kim Jong-un is dissimilar from his father and grandfather. Maybe he truly wants to break with the past. After all, Mikhail Gorbachev was your typical Soviet apparatchik…until he wasn’t. Like the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, the North Korean economic situation is bleak and getting grimmer by the day. Sanctions relief and reintegration into the global trading network would be the boost Kim needed to rehabilitate his country and his regime.

But, what people forget about Gorbachev is that he was a KGB man in his youth. Also, he was an ardent believer in Communism and the legitimacy of the Soviet system. More importantly, before Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) program in the mid-1980s, he began his time as the Red leader with a far different theme: uskorenie (acceleration).  

As the great Derek Leebaert documented about Gorbachev’s aforementioned uskorenie doctrine:

“[Gorbachev] spent his first year and a half vainly invoking old means to dynamize faltering tyranny: military spending was boosted, neighbors were threatened, the war in Afghanistan was intensified, and Washington was accused of promoting terrorism, in such time as it could spare from creating the AIDS virus at Fort Detrick in order to annihilate Africans.”

Leebaert also rightly analyzes that:

“The alert Mikhail Gorbachev had been groomed by [Yuri] Andropov as the only Politburo member likely to be able to contend with Reagan.”

And, lastly, Leebaert concludes:

“[Gorbachev] attempted to change the Soviet system only upon realizing that the economy was too far gone for business as usual.”

So, when President Trump asserts his belief that Kim’s intentions are dissimilar from those of his father’s and grandfather’s (who simply used diplomacy to extract concessions from the West and rarely fulfilled their obligations), perhaps he is right. It is possible that the young Kim is sitting in a position similar to that of Mikhail Gorbachev.

And, as my friend and colleague, Michael Walsh recently asserted, Donald Trump is “single-handedly reviving the Great Man theory of leadership.” All of the pieces of the North Korean puzzle indicate that, when assembled, it will appear and act nothing like as the American (or even South Korean) leaders wish. However, similar arguments could have been (and were) made of the Soviet Union shortly before Reagan and Gorbachev brokered a meaningful end to the Cold War (and ultimately set the Soviet Union on a rapid course to collapse).

If Walsh’s outlook is correct (and, for everyone’s sake, I hope that he is) then the individual leaders of states matter far more to the future than anything else. If that is the case, Donald Trump may be the only human being capable of moving Kim Jong-un and his hermit kingdom into the 21st century in a peaceful fashion.


Then again, Kim Jong-un is far different from Mikhail Gorbachev: his country’s geopolitical situation is dissimilar from that of the Soviet Union’s; North Korea’s intentions are incongruous with those of the Soviet Union during the time of Gorbachev’s glasnost policies; and the histories are fundamentally different. There is, after all, a reason that the Korea scholar, Victor D. Cha, rightly dubbed North Korea as the “impossible state.”

More than his father, Kim Jong-un has embarked upon a program of an ideological reinvigoration of the North Korean official state religion of Juche (and nuclear weapons development plays a fundamental role in that quasi-state religion). Since his ascension to power, Kim has behaved more rabidly and violently against his enemies–both real and perceived–than his father ever did. And, where there are similarities with his father, it is in the wrong areas–namely Kim’s willingness to drag out negotiations, make grand promises, but then deliver none of them, while accepting concessions from everyone else.

Victor D. Cha defines Kim Jong-un’s reinvigoration of Juche (which Cha claims is, in fact, “neojuche revivalism”) as:

“The new ideology calls for a return to the core principles that made North Korea great during the Cold War, and discards the attempted periods of experimentation and reform as deviant turns that dirtied the minds and spirits of Koreans. [It] also stresses ‘son’gun’ (‘military-first’) politics [that] wholeheartedly associates the drive for nuclear weapons with the country’s achievement of ‘kangsong tae’guk’ (‘rich nation, strong army’). The result of all this is that North Korea is going back to the future–the next generation will inherit a revivalist and reactionary ideology from the Cold War that is more conservative, unrepentant, and ever more dogmatic.”

As for the economic situation in North Korea being bleak: it has always been bleak. In the 19th century, the West was opening up trade in every Asian state it could locate. Yet, the Koreans resisted.

While it is true that the Westerners were very often forcibly opening Asian states up to international commerce (and creating unfair trade deals that favored the Western states at the expense of the Eastern ones), countries like Japan still benefited mightily from trade with the West. Despite the potential gains, the Koreans insisted on remaining isolated from the world.

Even before Western colonialism opened up Asia, the Koreans consistently avoided regular contact with their neighbors, because they were so militantly opposed to being integrated into any system that might impact their cultural homogeneity.

These patterns remain in place–particularly in the North–today. So, while the North Korean elite certainly do enjoy their luxury products, it remains unclear how far they are willing to go to ensure their continued enjoyment of such things (and possibly more).

No Concessions, No Retreat

Donald Trump should meet with Kim, but nothing truly substantive should be conceded until Kim terminates his nuclear program and opens his country up to weapons inspectors. The meeting between Trump and Kim shouldn’t even be taking place in Singapore. If anything, it should be taking place in China–and the Chinese government should be paying for it.

Going into the negotiations, the United States should at least have the public appearance of a unified front with all interested parties against North Korea. Instead, there is discord between the interested parties–and Pyongyang is picking up on that discord and manipulating it to gain an upper hand in the pending talks.

And, since China is North Korea’s greatest enabler, it should be held in China to remind everyone of China’s complicity in these matters.

After the meeting, also, President Trump should take to the airwaves and declare (if you’ll pardon the expression) a crash program to build and deploy reliable space-based missile defenses in orbit within the year.

Regardless of whether anything meaningful happens at the June 12 summit in Singapore, one thing should remain clear: Kim Jong-un will have a fully functional nuclear arsenal within the two years (maybe sooner, since all that is stopping him is the lack of a reliable ICBM). Once he acquires that capability, the entire jig is up for the United States, and China’s soft annexation of the Korean Peninsula will have been complete (since Kim Jong-un is working hand-in-hand with Beijing).

Whereas before I was keenly hopeful for these pending talks, I am now anything but. You should be too. It is probable, as Angelo Codevilla argued, that Trump is falling for the great diplomatic trap that North Korea has set for him–and we are all going to pay the price for it.

In two years time, expect a North Korea that is fully nuclear weapons capable.


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