If the Hanoi talks break down, the fault rests with Kim

If the Hanoi talks break down, the fault rests with Kim
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The U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was recently touted in the media as a good man with an impossible task. There are two implications wrapped up in this assertion. The first is that Biegun cannot achieve U.S. strategic objectives through negotiations with North Korea. The second is that he, and ultimately President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE, will be responsible for failure at the forthcoming summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi and beyond.

Both are false.

Let’s begin by noting something that should by now be obvious, if unpopular: If this process fails, it will not be for the lack of effort on the part of the Trump administration. Biegun is doing his best to play the hand he’s been dealt. And Donald Trump (as he himself tweeted), has done  more to engage Pyongyang than any president before him. Indeed, should this process break down, as many predict, the responsibility will be Kim Jong Un’s. Kim has a rare opportunity to make the right strategic choice for the Korean people. In return for giving up his nuclear weapons, the U.S., the Republic of Korea, and much of the international community are willing to help him build a country that would share in the success of its Asian neighbors.

Kim is likely to reject such a deal in the end. Trump and Biegun will almost certainly be blamed for not understanding the very nature of the North Korean leadership. After all, it is the nature of Kim Jong-un and the Kim family regime to reject American overtures. Indeed, the regime’s DNA is hard wired to viscerally distrust, fear, and hate the U.S.

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If there is no breakthrough in Hanoi, such as a formal end of war declaration to replace the current armistice on the peninsula, Kim will blame the U.S.  He will say he wanted the Korean civil war to end, but Trump remained belligerent. It’s all very predictable. But this does not mean that the administration should be blamed for trying to prevent a conflict, which remains in the American interest.

Critics will say Trump failed to understand Kim’s vulnerabilities and thus failed to provide security guarantees. But those who focus on reassuring Pyongyang fail to understand that, to Kim, security guarantees and denuclearization mean the end of the strategic alliance between Washington and Seoul. Kim seeks nothing less than to end the American nuclear umbrella over the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan. He wants the withdrawal of U.S. troops. These are all nonstarters for the Trump Administration. Or, at least, we must hope they are.

While Kim seems to be enjoying the high profile diplomacy with Trump, he is most likely playing a long con. He is executing a subversion campaign against the ROK to create the conditions for unification under northern domination.  And he will do as his father did before him, wielding provocations to gain political and economic concessions.

The con appears to be working — for now.  The ROK, western media, and even the administration have adopted Pyongyang’s preferred themes and messages. A recent White House fact sheet even echoed Kim Jong Un’s vision for negotiations almost word for word, calling for “transformed relations, a lasting and stable peace, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Since Kim expects the U.S. to make all the significant concessions at the negotiating table, he is inclined to believe that only Trump can make things work. But perhaps President Trump’s unconventional, experimental top-down diplomacy will help Kim to see things differently.  We must all hope it does — even if the odds are against him.

In the end, however, if a sustainable peace is somehow achieved in Hanoi, the achievement won’t be Trump’s. It won’t be Biegun’s either. It will be Kim Jong Un’s. It will have been Kim’s heroic decision to spurn his family’s legacy and make the right strategic choice in return for a brighter future.  And even then, it may take years to determine whether the U.S. and North Korea are moving toward peace, or whether we have fallen for an especially long con.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @davidmaxwell161.