Trump’s offer could be just what Pyongyang was seeking

Trump’s offer could be just what Pyongyang was seeking
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Within 36 hours of North Korea’s sudden warning that Donald Trump’s much-hyped June meeting with Kim Jong Un may not happen, the president responded by offering a bigger carrot to keep things on track, and brandished a bigger stick if they don’t.

Trump told reporters that if Kim dismantles his nuclear program, the United States would make it financially worthwhile for his regime and the North Korean people. An offer of generous economic and development aid already had been put on the table by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMexico's president presses Pompeo on reuniting migrant families The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies for Putin summit: 'He’s not my enemy’ Trump's administration should avoid pursuing an unreachable end with North Korea MORE, and Trump reiterated that Kim “would be very, very happy. His country would be rich, like South Korea.”

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But then the president dropped a political and diplomatic bombshell. Going well beyond earlier statements by Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE, that Washington would not “seek regime change,” the president said the United States will affirmatively provide Kim with regime security.

 

Reporters pressed him to reconcile that assurance with the declaration of National Security Advisor John Bolton that North Korea’s denuclearization should follow “the Libyan model.” That resulted in Libya’s denuclearization and Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall and death.

Trump said the two situations were not comparable. In the case of Libya, he said, Washington didn’t promise regime security. “We decimated that country. ... We never said to Gaddafi, ‘We’re going to give you protection.’ ... There was never a deal to keep Gaddafi. ... It was the exact opposite… This would be a much different deal. ... Kim Jong Un would be there in his country. He’d be running his country. ... He’ll get protections that will be very strong.”

In fact, Trump warned, the Libya scenario would occur only if North Korea did not proceed with the complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization Washington is demanding. “That model would take place, most likely, if we don’t make a deal … if we’re going to be having a problem, because we just can’t let that country have nukes; we just can’t do it.”

In other words, the president was telling Pyongyang, a cancelled or failed summit with Kim would return the situation back to the confrontational posture it was in just a few months ago. Except that now the “fire and fury” he earlier threatened would not be triggered only by a tangible provocation by North Korea, such as another nuclear or missile test. Instead, it would be justified simply by Kim’s failure to move definitively toward denuclearization.

So, Trump has escalated both the promise of reward and the threat of military action, which, given the Libya example, is more likely to be a form of regime decapitation than a “bloody nose.” He has given Kim an offer he can’t refuse — and it may be just the offer Pyongyang was anxiously seeking with its gambit of casting doubt on the prospect of a Trump-Kim meeting. It may even have told the U.S. administration privately that it needed the explicit security guarantee from the president’s lips before proceeding further with preparations for the Singapore meeting.

But why, and why now? The explanation given by Pyongyang — that the recent U.S.-South Korea naval and air exercises posed a fresh threat to North Korea — is not credible. Pyongyang already had told South Korean President Moon Jae-in weeks ago that it understood and accepted that the annual exercises could proceed without jeopardizing the high-level negotiations.

The toughened North Korean position occurred within days of a second Kim meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing. President TrumpDonald John TrumpReporters defend CNN's Acosta after White House says he 'disrespected' Trump with question Security costs of Trump visit to Scotland sparks outrage among Scottish citizens Ex-CIA officer: Prosecution of Russians indicted for DNC hack 'ain't ever going to happen' MORE speculated that “Xi, the president of China, may be influencing Kim Jong Un.” But, what prompted their agreement to throw a curveball into the coming talks? Trump made a reference to the unprecedented trade sanctions Washington is imposing on China, but he did not explicitly state it as a cause of Xi’s possible mischief.  

Possibly, what Beijing and Pyongyang most fear is in fact a push by Washington for regime change in North Korea, given past statements by Pompeo and Bolton supporting it, the president’s series of three major speeches highlighting Pyongyang’s egregious human rights record, and his offering an Oval Office meeting with North Korean defectors to dramatize the regime’s crimes against humanity.

Trump’s security guarantee to Kim will involve complex negotiations because the American people will not accept such a commitment to the criminal Kim regime made in their name. To earn public support for the deal, the Trump administration will need to demand significant changes in the way North Korea is governed, starting with the closing of the regime’s “re-education” prison camps where tens of thousands of men, women and children are confined under brutally inhumane conditions.

President Trump has skillfully maneuvered Pyongyang and its senior partner, Beijing, into far weaker positions than virtually the entire foreign policy establishment thought possible. He can extract the maximum benefit for the United States and the world by focusing now on both U.S. interests and American values.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He previously taught a graduate seminar in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and  the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.