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Kim Jong Un’s killer Trump trap

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sudden proposition to President Trump for a date is premeditated and potentially deadly. While the proposed meeting between the heads of the longtime antagonistic states — were it actually to happen — would be unprecedented, Pyongyang’s outreach was entirely predictable. It certainly is not unprecedented.

Kim is simply taking a page out of his father’s 2000 playbook. That year, Kim Jong Il, the father of the current youthful despot and second hereditary ruler of the dystopian dynasty that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, set a new standard in international shakedown. After firing a missile over Japan (for the first time) in 1998 and following it up with a naval skirmish against South Korea in 1999, Kim the Second wound down his crisis-crescendo dial and turned up the charm-o-meter.

{mosads}In June, Kim Jong Il hosted the first-ever inter-Korean summit meeting and pocketed $500 million from the Southern pilgrim. Next stop: Washington. In October, Kim Jong Il’s senior-most military man personally conveyed to President Clinton his boss’s invitation for a Pyongyang pilgrimage. Clinton, who was keen on traversing the traps-strewn path to Pyongyang, was saved by the George W. Bush-Al Gore election recount fiasco that dragged on until mid-December.


But his secretary of State, hastily dispatched to Pyongyang before the November election, was less fortunate, leaving some embarrassing, lasting images (for example, improperly holding her Champagne flute while the North Korean dictator, well-versed in the sybaritic lifestyle, holds it correctly by its stem). During those heady years of the Clinton-Bush continuum, the United States, hoodwinked by the Pyongyang Ponzi scheme, gave North Korea in excess of $1.3 billion.

In the coming weeks, Kim Jong Un may send Kim Yo Jong, his dear sister and Royal Censor, to Washington to further soften up Trump and seal the deal. The imperious smiles-flashing Kim Yo Jung is an unprecedented, bias-busting weapon for the Kim regime. Hers is a softer, kinder, quasi-glamorous human face on the inhumane and eminently mockable regime that is the North Korean state. Were the Pyongyang princess, who reportedly is pregnant, make the trans-Pacific trip visibly appearing so, well-wishers the world over would swoon and mutter under their breath how oafish it would be of Trump not to heed the hard-working, self-sacrificing, peace-seeking envoy’s sincere entreaty to meet her hard-playing, fellow citizens-sacrificing, war-threatening brother.

Trump should see Kim’s “offer” to refrain from further weapons tests for now as what it is — a lazy recycling of the old ruse he used on the Obama administration in 2012. Nuclear and ballistic missile tests are prohibited by more than 10 United Nations Security Council resolutions. Hence, the mere utterance of abstinence from forbidden activities does not a change of heart make. Moreover, Kim Jong Un’s sudden “commitment” to holding “denuclearization” talks — a quarter-century-old canard — in North Korean parlance means the end of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence to South Korea (and Japan) and the abrogation of the U.S.-South Korea defense treaty.

In short, Kim not only has not made any concession but has managed to hypnotize many into believing that last-minute banquets and bonhomie will trump the reality of Pyongyang’s half-century-old pursuit of nukes and Washington’s quarter-century-old record of failed nuclear diplomacy. 

So, how should Trump proceed?

First, think hard on basic logic: At what point between Vice President Pence’s invalidation of Kim Jong Un’s Pyeongchang Olympics outreach as a “charade” in early February and Kim’s courting of President Trump in early March did the Dear Leader’s intentions become not fake?

Second, the United States should make some basic demands — action beyond words. Start with small steps such as calling on Kim to release detained U.S. and South Korean citizens and allow separated Korean families across the Demilitarized Zone the basic freedom of telephone calls and exchange of letters. All the while, enforce U.S. sanctions laws resolutely, as tempting as it may be to compromise for the sake of diplomatic progress.

Trump must realize that the terms of the gradual suspension and ultimate termination of U.S. sanctions against the Kim regime are codified into law. Unless Pyongyang takes meaningful steps toward the complete dismantlement of its nuclear plants and centrifuges; stops illicit activities such as counterfeiting U.S. currency, money laundering and proliferation; releases all political prisoners and stops censoring the North Korean people in extremis; abides by international norms as an aid-recipient nation; and complies with monitoring and, ultimately, reforms its horrific prison camps, the U.S. is legally bound to continue to enforce sanctions.

Third, inconvenient as it may be, Trump must speak the truth to Kim Jong Un. If the president is able to muster up the strength to look Kim in the eye and tell him, “Mr. Kim: Tear down the walls of your inhumane gulags,” his meeting with the tyrant, even if denuclearization fails in the near-term, may mark a powerful symbolic moment. But if Trump falls for Kim’s trap and, after indulging in the bonhomous moment of the summitry, prematurely relaxes sanctions — thus, legitimating and rewarding the world’s most tyrannical leader — then his meeting with Kim will be yet another bleak moment in the inglorious annals of U.S. diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

More likely, it will be worse. North Korea today stands on the verge of nuclear breakout and becoming a continual credible nuclear threat to the continental United States. A summit meeting short on substance will only allow Kim to buy more time and money with which to pre-empt U.S. pre-emption and perfect his own nuclear posture, to be implemented at a time of his own choosing. For Trump to succumb to Pyongyang’s transparent ploy and prematurely deprive himself of the one effective nonlethal policy he has — sanctions enforcement — would be to affirm Karl Marx’s maxim, “History repeats itself, the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Worse still, in the strange, atavistic case of the North Korean nuclear saga, the first summit gambit in 2000 was farcical aplenty. A replay of history in 2018 may invite not just a conventional tragedy, but nuclear calamity. Trump must at all cost circumvent Pyongyang’s traps and ensure that the joke, for once, is on Kim.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor of Korean studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

Tags Al Gore Donald Trump Government of North Korea Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un Korea North Korea–South Korea relations

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