Greet warmly but test rigorously when dealing with North Korea

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Imagine if President Obama had agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after sending his CIA director to Pyongyang to meet secretly with officials there. Now imagine further that North Korean officials subsequently declared that they no longer needed to test nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles and would close a major nuclear testing site.

I suspect that there would be howls of apocalyptic protest from the right and nominations for a second Nobel Peace Prize for Obama from the left. So let’s suspend our respective pavlovian reflexes and agree that Kim’s announcement is a positive development. The legitimate question, of course, is how much of a development?

{mosads}Kim announced late Friday that North Korea has no need for further long-range missile launches. That’s a big deal, unless you live within range of medium-range and short-range missiles, in which case your perspective might be very different, hence the carefully worded and underwhelming response from Japan.

Kim also said he would close one of his country’s nuclear testing facilities. That’s also good news, although reports suggest that the facility is inoperable and he may be “shutting down” what basically has been shuttered already. This announcement is in essence a bold demonstration of “no news is good news.” Kim effectively publicizes the status quo, which is far preferable than a step backward, such as another missile test launch or more saber-rattling.

But the potential for miscalculation awaits. Are these announcements true confidence-building measures or tactics designed to buy time, ease sanctions and put President Trump in a weakened position going into the talks? If misread, North Korea’s latest steps could drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, and between the United States and our allies. They come at a delicate time when Trump is threatening to scuttle the nuclear arms agreement with Iran because, among other reasons, he insists that Iran can’t be trusted.

The fact is that North Korea has always stagemanaged the drama around any negotiations with other countries, and particularly with the United States. Its leaders have established a brutal patience with the long-term devastation of their people to secure short-term strategic advantages for themselves. They inflate hopes, cut deals, sign agreements, secure sanctions relief, and then violate whatever deal they made, leaving them not only enriched economically, but sitting in positions to ratchet up demands in the next cycle of drama.

If Kim’s overtures are legitimate this time, it’s because current global sanctions are biting in ways that concern him directly. On its own, North Korea has half the petroleum it needs to fuel its entire fleet of automobiles. Military units are reportedly using ox-driven transportation. For the thousands of political and military elites surrounding Kim, the sanctions are widely considered to be barely impactful, although some analysts suggest that sanctions may finally be affecting the wealth and comfort of the elites at long last. For 22 million other North Koreans, the sanctions are ruinous.

In this geopolitical chess match, the White House has one option: Greet Kim’s proclamations warmly and test them rigorously. The “art of the deal” may be reaching a new art form viewed by the entire world. That might explain why Trump and Kim, neither of whom has ever been shy about attention, have agreed to meet in the first place.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and was co-chairman of the House Democratic national security study group. His latest novel, “Big Guns,” was released this month. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Barack Obama Diplomacy Donald Trump Global Affairs Government Kim Jong Un Military National security North Korea Nuclear weapons Steve Israel White House

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