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Kim Jong Un has no intention of giving up his nukes

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By presumably agreeing to meet with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, President Trump has a very small chance of breaking the longstanding deadlock and advancing security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. But there is a far greater likelihood this is an ill-advised, impetuous and reckless move that will only make matters worse.

The prospect of talks between the United States and North Korea is far more appealing than the prospect of war. In an ideal world, President Trump could offer to ease sanctions and sign a peace treaty in exchange for full North Korean denuclearization.

{mosads}In this fantasy, Trump could also get Kim to release the estimated 120,000 prisoners from the brutal North Korean prison camps the U.N. has deemed a “crime against humanity.” 


Riding the wave of good feeling and enhanced security, North Korea would gradually open its economy and political system to look more like China’s and a grudging but livable peace could overtake the Korean peninsula.

But in the world we actually inhabit, countries behave in their own strategic national interests, and an even cursory look at the interest of the countries involved suggests trouble ahead.

For North Korea’s top leaders, nuclear weapons provide an insurance policy against foreign invasion, a critical asset for ensuring regime survival and a way to significantly enhance their international standing and ability to blackmail other countries.

Developing these weapons has been a core national priority for decades and the only way they will give them up is if the cost of having nuclear weapons is greater than giving them up. This would be the case if North Korea faced either an imminent and credible foreign invasion or the possibility of an economic and societal collapse.

No matter how bellicose President Trump’s rhetoric against North Korea has been, the fact remains that a pinpoint preemptive attack on North Korea would be too risky for the United States. Even if the U.S. destroyed a few nuclear sites, it would have no credible way of shutting down the massive North Korean conventional arms threatening Seoul.

If the U.S. attacked and North Korea responded, America would need to keep escalating to coerce the North Koreans to back down. Not only could this approach lead to tens or even hundreds of thousands of U.S. and South Korean casualties, but it could also break the U.S.-South Korean alliance that’s been a cornerstone of Asia regional security for over 60 years.

All previous American presidents have wished the U.S. had a more credible military option on the table. We simply don’t. That’s why Trump’s own secretary of Defense, James Mattis, said that a conflict between the United States and North Korea would be “catastrophic” and “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Increased economic sanctions, the most recent ones pushed successfully by the Trump administration, have also hurt North Korea and likely played a role in bringing the North Koreans to the table. But Pyongyang does not fear economic collapse as long as they can count on China to keep their economy alive, even if on life support.

But while China is exasperated about North Korea and has stepped up its efforts to implement sanctions over recent months, Beijing has shown no interest in pushing North Korea to the point of collapse because Beijing would still rather have even a hostile and nuclear-armed North Korea on its border than a reunified Korea allied with the United States.

Even though North Korea is extremely unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, they have a strong interest in enhancing the prestige of their leader as an equal to the American president, positioning themselves as nuclear-armed peacemakers and buying time to allow them to improve their nuclear weapon and missile arsenals.

North Korean leaders have craved a direct meeting with a sitting U.S. president for decades but never realized this goal until now because past U.S. administrations have deemed such a meeting unwise. A leadership meeting, the thinking went, should be a reward for progress rather than a first move.

On the day of the proposed May meeting, Kim Jong Un will have already achieved much of what he wants. He will have a relatively deliverable nuclear arsenal and North Korea will be on an equal sovereign footing with the United States.

The North Koreans will likely then once again offer to denuclearize if the U.S. provides full diplomatic recognition, signs a peace treaty, withdraws its troops from South Korea, removes its nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan, reduces its own nuclear arsenal and decreases its military presence in Asia.

Accepting this type of offer would be a disaster for the United States because it would leave its South Korean allies more vulnerable to North Korean armed blackmail and send a dangerous message to its allies around the world that American security guarantees cannot be trusted. 

When it becomes clear later this year that the North Koreans have no serious intention of giving up their nukes, it will be clear that North Korea denuclearization was never really on the table.

At that point, President Trump will face the option of accepting he’s been hoodwinked by the far more strategic and sly North Koreans or of becoming extra tough, saying he gave peace a final chance.

If the U.S. should instigate a military strike at that time, the costs could be catastrophic. If not, the American president will have been diminished by North Korea’s dictator.

North Korea’s leaders are clearly outplaying Donald Trump, but the U.S. can and must do better. To even have a hope of taking advantage of this slight but dangerous opening, the Trump administration needs an integrated and phased strategy that is coordinated with our allies, a far cry from the dangerous improvisation and inconsistency we’ve seen so far.

President Trump’s impetuous decision to meet with Kim Jong Un could hypothetically spark a breakthrough — but is far more likely to lead to a hangover.  

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Jamie Metzl is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and has served on the U.S. National Security Council, State Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.

Tags Aftermath of the Korean War Donald Trump Foreign relations of North Korea Government of North Korea International relations James Mattis Kim Jong-un Korea Korean reunification North Korea North Korea–South Korea relations North Korea–United States relations Politics of North Korea

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