I’m still skeptical about the prospects for the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – but not mainly for the slew of reasons trotted out by the Never Trump chattering class since this historic meeting began taking shape.
For example, it’s true that the President has little international negotiating experience. But which of the so-called experts expounding endlessly on the summit in recent weeks – especially those who worked in previous U.S. Administrations – has any record of dealing with the North Koreans that can be accurately described as anything else but abject failure? In fact, if Kim is as unconventional (to put it diplomatically) a leader as he’s commonly described, maybe Mr. Trump’s decades of dealing in the dog-eat-dog New York City real estate world will be much more useful background than anything that can be provided by CIA briefing books.
Has the President already handed North Korea an unearned, unreciprocated victory by agreeing to meet with Kim in the first place? This charge assumes that face-to-face talks with an American leader greatly adds to his North Korean counterpart’s legitimacy. But it’s hard to see how. Kim’s rule in North Korea isn’t based on any form of popular consent. Like his father and grandfather, his hold on power owes exclusively on repression. And in terms of global opinion, this indictment leaves two crucial questions unanswered. First, why on earth is Kim’s global image the slightest bit relevant to U.S.-North Korea diplomacy? And second, what thinking person would fundamentally change his or her views on Kim’s stature or record, or whatever criteria is chosen, solely, or to any extent, because he’s photographed side-by-side with a U.S. President?
Will Mr. Trump turn out to be over-anxious for success and agree to a cosmetic or outright bad deal just to boost his ego, or his domestic poll numbers – and Republicans’ chances in this fall’s midterm elections? This concern actually resembles my own principal fear, but my underlying reasons are fundamentally different (and much more coherent) than those of run-of-the-mill Trump critics. And more important, the policy conclusions I draw remain fundamentally different.
The Trump critics seem to define a bad deal as one in which the President makes concrete concessions to North Korea (say, some relaxation of economic sanctions, or the withdrawal of some U.S. military forces) in return for vague or misleading or unenforceable promises by Kim to take some steps to start dismantling his nuclear arsenal. In addition, it’s argued that if this pattern drags on, North Korea could pocket valuable gains (a stronger economy, an improved military position on the Korean peninsula, more time to make more covert progress on its nuclear program) at the expense of the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies. And don’t forget the alarms expressed at the prospect that, if Mr. Trump concludes he’s been snookered, he’ll angrily cut off the negotiations and – much worse – his administration could resume military threats that eventually, whether intentionally or not, trigger real conflict.
The main problem with the critics’ warnings isn’t that they’re far-fetched. Indeed, they’re all too plausible. Instead, the main problem is that the bulk of the critics have urged North Korea policies that would create many of the same dangers – principally, American agreement to relax the sanctions, and/or to military steps like halting certain exercises condemned as needlessly provocative by the North but essential for maintaining readiness, in exchange for moves by Kim that would fall way short of complete, verifiable de-nuclearization.
In other words, the critics, like the over-anxious Trump of their purported nightmares, seem to be willing to live for quite some time with a North Korea that remains a formidable nuclear power, and with one that might keep on perfecting a weapon that could destroy one or more American cities in the event of a peninsular war. As I’ve explained, this arsenal, along with the ongoing presence of a U.S. tripwire military force, could easily produce a White House decision to enter a war that might result in almost unimaginable damage to the American homeland.
I’m not saying that this terrifying scenario will unfold inevitably. Nor am I completely pessimistic about the stars aligning for success over time – such as Kim’s reported determination to develop North Korea’s primitive economy (for reasons that include a self-interested calculation that more domestic prosperity is his best bet for regime survival), the Trump administration’s promise to maintain its intensified sanctions in the absence of major de-nuclearization progress, and Kim’s possible fear that the administration’s talk about preemptive or preventive war isn’t just bluster.
What I am saying is that the uncertainties are still so great, and the stakes (a nuclear attack on American soil) are so high, that it remains reckless to assume any needless risk to the nation at all. And the best way by far to eliminate needless risk from the Korea nuclear crisis, as I’ve written repeatedly, is to remove American troops from the peninsula and to allow North Korea’s neighbors to deal with its nuclear arsenal however they wish.
Such a withdrawal would remove any rational reason for Kim to attack the United States with his nuclear weapons in the event of a peninsular war. And an American threat to retaliate massively for an attack on its own territory would be almost infinitely more credible than a threat to retaliate for an attack on another country – especially if and when North Korea develops intercontinental nuclear strike capabilities.
The drawbacks of withdrawal should by now be familiar – destabilization and possibly war in East Asia, and a missed opportunity to end finally a frightening, decades-long threat to this region of big populations and economies. But the advantages – which are not nearly familiar enough because the nuclear risks of America’s alliances policies have been obscured from the public for so long – entail minimizing the chances of what would be by orders of magnitude the worst catastrophe in the country’s history. What a tragedy – and indeed scandal – that this question is still open.