Nothing good comes from yearning for a Nobel Peace Prize for its own sake.
In the matter of North Korea, the Trump administration deserves credit for departing from Barack Obama’s misbegotten policy of sitting idly by (otherwise known as “strategic patience”) while the DPRK advanced toward its goal of developing nuclear-armed ICBMs. Since Trump took office, he has responded to North Korean malfeasance — the hideous murder of Otto Warmbier, the assorted missile tests — by tightening the screws on the Kim Jong-un regime. The Treasury Department has leveled meaningful economic sanctions against North Korea, as has the United Nations Security Council, in large part thanks to American pressure.
Now the North Koreans want to talk, and chatter about a Nobel Peace Prize is in the air. Yet it is nothing new to get the North Koreans to the negotiating table — and that’s the problem. It is far from clear that there is any sort of fundamental breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula, diplomatic showmanship notwithstanding. Last week, South Korean president Moon Jae-in met Kim at the border between the two countries for a summit, and Trump sounds increasingly optimistic that peace is within reach.
In negotiations with the U.S., the DPRK likely will resort to its usual gamesmanship to get sanctions relief and economic aid as the negotiations are ongoing.
We have seen this particular show before, and nothing good has come of it. North Korea’s diplomatic strategy of the last few decades has been to pretend that it will make major concessions, only to renege on those promises after pocketing economic benefits. Last week, Kim reportedly told Moon that the DPRK would abandon its nuclear program if the U.S. promised not to attack the North. Thirteen years ago, Kim Jong-il said the same thing. The friendly meeting between Kim and Moon at the Demilitarized Zone featured a moment fraught with symbolism when the North Korean leader crossed over into the South, but the summit between the two leaders evoked the summits of 1992, 2000, and 2007: highly touted affairs that, ultimately, went nowhere.
In negotiations with the U.S., the DPRK likely will resort to its usual gamesmanship to get sanctions relief and economic aid as the negotiations are ongoing. As for Kim’s supposed offer to disarm, he of course hedged it by noting that North Korea would give up its nuclear program over a period of years.
There is no reason to believe that Kim has given up on his goal of detaching the U.S. from its alliance with South Korea, toward the strategic end of eventually absorbing the South under Pyongyang’s rule, a core ideological commitment of his regime. If Kim is indeed departing from the long-held orthodoxies of his gangster state, he is at risk of Gorbachev-ing himself and unraveling his totalitarian system. This would be a boon to humanity, but is almost certainly not his intention.
We would prefer that Trump not jump directly into talks with Kim himself, but he’s obviously set on it. To avoid a repeat of the failures of the past, he must stick to his stated willingness to walk away from a bad deal — basically, anything short of a North Korean strategic decision to give up its nuclear program in months — and keep the policy of “maximum pressure” in place. The North surely knows exactly what it wants to get out of the talks. So should we — and a shiny gold medal shouldn’t be among our goals.