Latest US-North Korea summit was 'déjà vu all over again'

Latest US-North Korea summit was 'déjà vu all over again'
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The second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un has come and gone — without a denuclearization agreement, let alone a breakthrough signed by the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In fact, the talks collapsed abruptly despite all the hopes and hype since the first summit eight months ago in Singapore where the two leaders cordially embraced each other in personal diplomacy.  

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For any long-term observer of the North Korean nuclear-arming, it is hard to escape the feeling that the episode in Vietnam was, in the quotation attributed to Yogi Berra: “like déjà vu all over again." Summit has followed summit over the decades, and Pyongyang is still perfecting its atomic bombs and the missiles to carry them.   

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE followed in the footsteps of his White House predecessors — George H.W. Bush, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPrince Andrew says he regrets staying with Jeffrey Epstein Now for your moment of Zen from the Trump impeachment hearings The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE and George W. Bush — all of whom negotiated to disarm North Korea with blandishments of economic aid, diplomatic recognition and a genuine peace treaty to replace the temporary armistice suspending the Korean War.

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Democratic race for president may not sort itself out 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren MORE never tried, hiding behind his “strategic patience” doctrine, as four of Pyongyang’s six nuclear tests happened on his watch. Obama left an uninspiring legacy of do-nothingness in the face of grave threats. 

By nearly every measurement — champion of peace, arbiter of reconciliation between the estranged North and South since their war and facilitator of a way out for North Korea’s economic backwardness to re-join the developing world — Trump comes off with positive ratings. 

Better to try and fail than sit your hands. Had he not attempted disarmament, the Beltway pundits, think-tankers and political opposition would have castigated Trump for passing up a historic opportunity.

For the president, however, Kim’s offer to close down Yongbyon facilities in return for lifting all international sanctions was a bridge too far. Trump said: “Sometimes you have to walk.” And walk, he did.

Trump’s walk-away is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s thumbs down to Mikhail Gorbachev’s unexpected offer during the 1986 Reykjavik summit.

Like the Trump-Kim meeting, both the American president and the leader of the Soviet Union developed a personal chemistry in the year before their negotiations in Iceland over eliminating all new strategic missiles. 

The president was ready to scrap all U.S nuclear arms forever in return for a similar Soviet abandonment. A breath-taking deal nearly took place.

But Reagan championed a missile defense system to knock out incoming nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Secretary General Gorbachev feared that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), when fully developed, would give the United States a decisive advantage in the nuclear standoff. 

In return for eliminating all Soviet nuclear arms, Gorbachev demanded SDI be confined only to laboratory testing for 10 years. Reagan saw SDI as solely a defense shield, without an offensive capability. He repeatedly offered to share the anti-missile technology with Moscow.  

In the end, the two superpower leaders could not close the gap. Reagan walked away to wild criticism. The Soviet Union is no more, and the United States now has an anti-missile defense system, thanks to Reagan.

Just like agreements with North Korea, treaties with the Soviet Union were not a sure thing. To wit, the Reagan administration confronted Moscow on its battle-management radar at Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia in the early 1980s. 

It accused the Soviets of violating the anti-ballistic missile treaty in using the special radar to direct Russian missiles against incoming U.S. rockets. The 1972 treaty allowed for just one missile defense site, which the Kremlin already had around its capital.

Bargains struck with totalitarian nations demand eternal vigilance. So, even in striking a compromise with North Korea, the United States needs persistent monitoring. 

The foremost and enduring fact of Kim’s rule (and his father’s and grandfather’s) is that the DPRK will never surrender its nuclear weaponry and long-range missiles. The reason for this defiance is that for the North Korean dynasty a weapon is not just a weapon. 

Nuclear armaments are more than deadly instruments. They function like the joker in some card games, where it can substitute or trump other cards.

The Kim dynasty holds nuclear empowerment in its “deck” as a means to elevate the DPRK’s international status, to cow its population by pledges to safeguard them from the United States and to enshrine economic sacrifices to defense budgets under the cloak of patriotism.  

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What comes next? Time will tell whether Kim will resume nuclear and missile testing, which he halted in 2017, partly in reaction to Trump’s “fire and fury” warning and China’s pressure on Kim to moderate his dangerous posture. Whatever the outcome, Kim is less than an honest negotiator.  

Satellite evidence indicates that the North carried on its production of nuclear material and expanded missile bases after halting its tests.

Moreover, his offer to close down Yongbyon nuclear complex with U.S. inspectors present proved less than worthwhile, since another secret site called Kangson (which Washington revealed in Hanoi) is thought to be a nuclear enrichment plant.

Little doubt exists that the Kim regime has other hidden nuclear and missile plants, which it will use to cheat on any agreement. A chilling but relevant thought for any future arms-control talks.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His most recent book is "Cycles in U.S. Foreign Policy since the Cold War."