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Trump's Korean gambit could be a win regardless of the outcome

Trump's Korean gambit could be a win regardless of the outcome
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE’s announcement that he would accept the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss “denuclearization” was met with amazement, and then derision, by many pundits in Washington, D.C. They were dismayed that the president elected to break with conventional wisdom planned to do just that.

Trump’s sin, they asserted, was proposing to meet with the leader of a rogue state before that state demonstrated compliance with the desires of the U.S., its allies, and the “international community.”

But North Korea isn’t a normal state. It’s a personality cult with a seat at the United Nations, led by a man who killed his uncle and half-brother and who thinks “The Godfather” is a how-to manual. It already has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, which calls for a different approach from the president. And he should not assign it to staff, as Obama did with nuclear aspirant Iran.

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From Trump’s perspective, we’ve been using the same tactics for 65 years, and all we have to show for it are North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. So Trump advanced the timeline by agreeing to a meeting of principals rather than calling for more exercises by staff officers. And, sure, those road-mobile Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles can’t reliably deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S. — yet — but it’s the president’s job to ensure “yet” never arrives.

 

Trump said Middle East peace was “the ultimate deal,” but it isn’t. For most Americans the two-state solution is a “nice to have.” Kim’s nuclear-armed missiles, on the other hand, are a threat that must be eliminated soon. The electorate will reward the politician who makes that happen.

A one-on-one meeting between the American and North Korea leaders will give each the opportunity to take the measure of the other, without the intervention of the layers of bureaucracy. That will go a long way to minimize misunderstandings during the complicated negotiations that will follow the meeting of the principals.

The one-on-one will be the time for Trump to tell Kim: there won’t be any daylight between the U.S. and South Korea; “denuclearization” means only on the Korean Peninsula and not at Minot Air Force Base; and he understands North Korea’s neighbors’ concerns about nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia and that their reasonable response may be to acquire their own nuclear weapons.

But the meeting hasn’t happened yet. There is no agreed venue, and North Korea has yet to confirm the offer directly to U.S. diplomats. Trump also has not declared a halt to U.S. sanctions in response to Kim’s offer, so the U.S. pressure campaign can continue to the day of the meeting.

It is in the interest of both sides to make the meeting a success. Kim will be able to show all North Korea his policy of confrontation worked, which will scotch any internal resistance. Trump will be able to show that his policy of confrontation worked and is delivering results that eluded twelve previous U.S. presidents.

If the negotiations prove to be just the latest chapter in North Korea’s long history of playing hard alternating with extortion, Trump will be able to tell voters he did all he could, and that North Korea will be “in trouble like few nations have ever been.” Trump’s opponents will exult in his failure, but they should fear the fact that many voters will think he did all that he could and will be fine with whatever comes next.

But the denizens of the North aren’t the only Koreans Trump must keep an eye on.

South Korea’s new President Moon Jae In, led the left-leaning Democratic party back into power in 2017. When he was a university student, Moon was expelled for leading protests against the 1972 Yusin Constitution, which granted enormous power to Park, who was in his third presidential term after his allies amended the constitution, eliminating the two-term limit. In 2017, Moon had the satisfaction of succeeding the daughter of his bête noire as president.

Events in adolescence often take on an outsized importance in one’s middle years. Moon may want to put a bow on it by pushing for a so-so deal now, validating the struggle in the 1970s student movement while creating daylight between Seoul and Washington. Trump needs to ensure an intramural South Korea struggle over the country’s foundation myth doesn’t derail the opportunity to reduce the tension in North Asia and the targeting of North America.

Let’s hope the official party includes the American who knows Kim best: Dennis “The Worm” Rodman. Maybe he’ll get a new tattoo for the occasion.

James D. Durso (@James_Durso) is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).