The recently announced meeting between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un has created quite the storm of reporting. It is called a breakthrough and a wonder, but let's examine the potential. I hope as much as anyone that this meeting is a true breakthrough, and that the time for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is truly upon us. We must however be objective in our approach to any analysis.
A review of Pyongyang's history with diplomacy and its nuclear program does not engender hope for a favorable outcome for this round. In 1985, during the Reagan administration North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under pressure from the Soviet Union. This did not stop North Korea from proceeding with development of a nuclear capability. The Koreans agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into their facilities, an agreement on which they reneged on in 1993. In 1994 they agreed to freeze nuclear operations in exchange for two light water reactors and heavy fuel oil.
The US imposed sanctions in 1998 in response to North Korea transferring missile technology to Pakistan. Further talks and sanctions continued through 2002 resulting in the suspension of heavy oil shipments and construction on the light water reactors. There followed almost annual talks which failed, culminating with North Korea finally detonating a nuclear device in 2006. It has since detonated ever more powerful devices and continues to build and test missiles capable of carrying war heads. Those missiles may now be capable of reaching the continental US.
The question to ask then, is North Korea coming to the meeting because it does in fact want to reach an equitable resolution to the problem created by their nuclear weapons development program or for some other reason. What is it that brings Kim to the table? Put another way, after decades of failed efforts to get the North Koreans to negotiate in good faith, what, if anything has changed?
One possibility is that Kim is coming to the table believing that he is dealing from a position of power and that he will be legitimized in the eyes of the world by meeting with the President of the United States. North Korea's growing nuclear capability has attracted the attention of the Defense Department. The world has allowed North Korea to become a true nuclear power. It now has the ability to threaten not only Northeast Asia but much of the world. Has this new-found power given Kim the belief that he can now meet with Trump and make demands from a position of strength? If so, that bodes ill for the demands Kim may intend to make.
On the other hand, Kim may be coming to the realization that unlike past administrations, that of Donald Trump is actually wiling to use military power against him. He may, for the first time, be taking seriously the threats of military action against him. Threats of military action, only effective if taken seriously, may now seem credible to Kim.
Past rhetoric from the US has not been backed up with a viable threat. China has always stood as a counter to military action against North Korea. Currently, it appears China has lost both patience with the Kim regime as well as control. The reality of potential US action and the fear of losing power may have incentivized the North Korean regime to turn toward diplomacy. For the first time, the North Koreans may feel that they need to use diplomacy for something other than a pretext to extract conversions from the West.
The difference posed by the two scenarios outlined above is stark. The impact on how the talks will proceed dramatic. Either the North Koreans now believe they are dealing from a position of strength or they now legitimately feel that the United States will act to attack and destroy their nuclear facilities. Either the North Koreans now believe they can prosecute a war they know the west will do almost anything to avoid, or fear that the US will in fact attack and reduce their nuclear capability.
Considering how isolated Kim and his generals are it is unlikely that they can even envision an attack on their nuclear facilities. Kim therefore may come to the table in the belief that he is an equal partner to Trump. This of course will be the first time that Kim will face a foreign leader who is not friendly. In fact, this may be the first time in his life that Kim will sit across a table from someone whom he cannot intimidate.
What has Kim to lose? History has taught dictators that if they hold out long enough the west will give in. If it is this feeling of power that is driving Kim it is likely he is facing the wrong world leader. But Kim is the driving force in North Korea; in fact he is the only force in North Korea. There is no opposition party; there is no open press to criticize the process, and there is no constituency to be placated.
Both sides will undoubtedly play hardball, and both will make demands the other cannot accept. This is part of negotiating, it's what happens next that counts. Of course, this all depends on if Kim is coming to negotiate or feels he can make demands that Trump must accept, the first of course will be the removal of sanctions.
This brings us back full circle. What has changed in the last few years beyond North Korea's nuclear capability is a change in leadership in both countries. With very high stakes for the region and the world the danger faced is that we likely have two sides assuming different motives for the other.
Kim is likely, from what we know of him, coming to the talks feeling he has the upper hand, based on his presumed nuclear capabilities. Trump on the other hand will be confident that with all the resources available to the US, both military and economic, that Kim can be easily persuaded to acquiesce to US demands. The intelligence community has briefed Trump that Kim is a rational person, Trump will assume Kim must then know what the US military can do to his country. Should Trump be able to convince Kim that the threat of nuclear war is insufficient to drive the negotiations, and that the military option is very much alive, there is hope that a process to end the Norths nuclear ambition will have begun. If, however Kim is convinced only in his own invincibility and position of power, that he can stop the US, there will be no resolution and we will have inched closer to an armed confrontation.
We can hope for the best, but we should plan for the worst.