Trump must beware of declaring 'mission accomplished' on North Korea

Trump must beware of declaring 'mission accomplished' on North Korea

While tensions with North Korea — at least for the moment — have subsided, history tells us that Pyongyang’s promises are about as disposable as toilet paper. The Kim regime has broken every nuclear pledge it ever made, and most likely will conclude again that atomic arms are the only way to guarantee the regime's survival.

And make no mistake: Another North Korea crisis is in the offing — but perhaps one of our own making.

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Unless Chairman Kim Jong Un is ready to surrender his nuclear weapons and missiles completely and then open his country to thousands of international inspectors, the Trump administration will have a historic choice to make: War and most likely regime change, where millions would die with a cost in the trillions of dollars, years or maybe decades of containment —  or accepting North Korea as a full-fledged nuclear power.

 

None of that sounds very attractive.

However, the administration is doing itself no favors in the last few weeks, declaring over and over that Pyongyang is “no longer a nuclear threat.”

In fact, such rhetoric brings with it a sense of deja vu, of when another U.S. president 15 years ago declared a major national security nightmare to be over — what many call the “mission accomplished” moment — only to commit large sums of national treasure in Iraq, a nation that to this day seems broken.

To be fair, both situations are quite different, but the dangers of such strategic folly, or what can only be described as fairytale foreign policy outlooks, should give us pause.

Recall that the sight of President George W. Bush descending from the heavens to land on a Navy aircraft carrier, and then to declare the Second Gulf War effectively over and that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” will go down in the history books as hubris of the worst kind.

Thankfully, in the case of North Korea, the Trump administration has not been as bold, but there have been a few flashes of Bushian-style brazenness that ought to make our skin crawl.

First, there are the tweets — crafted in classic Trumpian fashion. On June 13, Trump declared that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience.” Minutes later, again on Twitter, he went further, this time saying that “before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer — sleep well tonight!”

From there it gets worse — and a little strange. During an impromptu interview on "Fox and Friends," with the White House providing a convenient backdrop, Trump explained that he and dictator Kim “get along very well; we had good chemistry. … We really did hit it off." Trump said Kim could even visit the White House, stating that “it could happen. He’s head of a country — and I mean he’s the strong head, and don’t let anybody think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” 

What a difference a few days makes — and not for the better. The administration already has had to backtrack, declaring in a notice to Congress as part of an action to ensure sanctions are maintained on the hermit kingdom that:

“The existence and risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula; the actions and policies of the Government of North Korea that destabilize the Korean Peninsula and imperil United States Armed Forces, allies, and trading partners in the region, including its pursuit of nuclear and missile programs; and other provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea continue to constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”  

The good news — if there is any such thing when it comes to North Korea — is that we will have clarity, and quite soon. With reports breaking that Team Trump will present some sort of “timeline” to North Korea with “specific asks,” we should have a good idea whether Kim is actually serious about “denuking.” One administration official went as far as to say that "we’ll know pretty soon if they’re going to operate in good faith or not.”

But why wasn’t all of this done months ago, way before there was talk of a summit?

Remember, it was just weeks and days before the official meeting — cancelled and then rescheduled — that the administration wanted firm promises on denuclearization before a summit ever took place, clearly the correct approach. Team Trump then decided to throw that demand out the window, hoping to convince Kim through a meeting and cancelling important military exercises that America and its allies are no threat.

That all seems like a big mistake — with a very predictable outcome. North Korea still won’t make any firm commitments on giving up its weapons, even after the administration made a major concession and met with Kim, weakened the maximum pressure campaign and even tried to sweet-talk him in the media.

Sadly, it seems every U.S. administration goes through the same painful learning curve when it comes to North Korea. The problem now is that the administration will have to eat its words (and actions) once Pyongyang follows its classic playbook: Stall for time, offer unreasonable demands, blame everyone else for failing negotiations — a process that usually goes on for months or years. All the while, Kim builds more and more nuclear weapons, to the tune of every six or seven weeks.

It seems when it comes to North Korea that nothing has been accomplished. In fact, the hard choices begin now, no matter what Trump’s Twitter feed declares. The question we should all be asking now is obvious: How will the president react once he realizes his “friend” Kim played him?

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Senate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal MORE presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.