Trump must turn 'art of the possible' into 'art of the deal' with North Korea

Trump must turn 'art of the possible' into 'art of the deal' with North Korea
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I don’t envy President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE. I don’t envy him because I’ve actually negotiated with the North Koreans and I really didn’t enjoy it. I did it as a two star at Panmunjom, the truce village in the demilitarized zone that has gotten some heavy traffic lately, from North Korean, South Korean and American delegations. All I was trying to do in the late 1990s was to establish some procedures with the Korean People’s Army to control unintended incidents along the DMZ.

While meeting in the simple frame building that straddles the armistice line, I often marveled at how my North Korean counterpart — Li Chan Bok, a generation my senior, who had dealt with many like me in these talks — could accommodate the cognitive dissonance that had to be created by the world as he described it to me and the world that actually existed around the two of us: the “puppet regime” in Seoul (now and then the 11th largest economy in the world — some puppet), American intentions to “conquer” the North (in my day, we actually spent more time considering how to cushion the regime’s collapse rather than planning for its overthrow), and every American exercise a rehearsal for “invasion.”

I wondered how he explained to himself the lights of Seoul, visible from his darkened country and illuminating his nighttime sky. But Li stuck to his narrative and, over time, I came to appreciate that there may have been less dissonance than I suspected. The North’s creation mythology had shaped such a relentlessly hostile image of America that Li was able to suppress all other data points in the service of this single, overriding narrative: One day, the Americans are coming to get us.

That narrative may be a problem for President Trump, particularly since it generates a different meaning for the key word “denuclearization.” For President Trump and his team, the word means the complete, verifiable and irreversible destruction of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, since it is that growing arsenal and its accompanying ballistic missiles that are threatening, destabilizing and, therefore, illegitimate. Any progress is contingent on the North rapidly disarming.

But Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, views the North’s nuclear efforts as a necessary counterbalance to what they see as the illegitimate division of the peninsula, the presence of American forces there, and our strategic commitment to the defense of South Korea. Even as the Trump administration isolated, sanctioned and threatened Kim over the past 16 months, the North sprinted toward dramatic increases in the number and power of its weapons and the means to deliver them at long range.

For Kim Jong Un, all that will be difficult to surrender, conceivable only as the byproduct of a fundamentally altered geostrategic situation in Northeast Asia. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHow Turkey sees its Syria invasion GOP lawmaker: Trump administration 'playing checkers' in Syria while others are 'playing chess' Clinton trolls Trump with mock letter from JFK to Khrushchev MORE’s tough talk of imposing the “Libya model” on North Korea if it refuses to disarm immediately merely confirms Kim Jong Un’s logic. There may not be any common ground, even if there was the slightest hint of flexibility last week when President Trump said he would like to have denuclearization “done immediately,” adding that “you know, physically, a phase-in may be a little bit necessary, we will have to do a rapid phase-in, but I'd like to see it done at one time.”

Then, Sig Hecker, former head of the nuclear lab at Los Alamos now at Stanford and frequent visitor to North Korea, suggested that even with goodwill, complete denuclearization of North Korea could take as long as 15 years as operations and personnel would have to be redirected, weapons destroyed or shipped out, and an extensive, hardened industrial base dismantled. This is a tall order and not exactly consistent with Trump administration rhetoric or the Trump brand. The president’s instinctive zero-sum approach to real estate negotiations — clear winners and clear losers — has now become evident in his approach to trade, immigration and diplomacy. If he carries that over into the Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un, the results will be foreordained, and bad.

Fortunately, there are other factors at work that could help President Trump. He has already committed to meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before the summit with Kim Jong Un. South Korean President Moon also has been active, pushing his own brand of long-term reconciliation with the North, perhaps suggesting to Kim Jong Un that inter-Korean dialogue was a preferred alternative to an American president enamored of military solutions. The North Koreans have dispatched to New York former spy chief Kim Yong Chol, a distasteful character (he is believed to be behind the Sony North America hack and the sinking of a South Korean corvette) but an authoritative and knowledgeable interlocutor for Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoDiplomat who raised Ukraine concerns to testify in Trump impeachment probe Overnight Defense: Trump weighs leaving some troops in Syria to 'secure the oil' | US has pulled 2,000 troops from Afghanistan | Pelosi leads delegation to Afghanistan, Jordan Mulvaney faces uncertain future after public gaffes MORE.

The Trump administration has even enlisted elements of the “deep state” with talented Bush administration veteran Joe Hagin handling pre-event logistics in Singapore and veteran Korea hand Sung Kim, an American diplomat born in Seoul, negotiating substance with North Korean officials at Panmunjom. But much, if not all, depends on President Trump. This is a summit, after all. Only he can sort out what he claims is the “art of the deal” from what much of his government will define as the “art of the possible.” I wish him better luck than I had at Panmunjom.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”