Donald Trump has accepted a surprise invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for an unprecedented face-to-face meeting, which Trump has said will be held by May.
Kim reportedly wants to discuss a peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea that would include an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. He has also promised to suspend further North Korean nuclear and ballistic tests until the meeting takes place.
The exact date and location of the meeting have yet to be determined. As of this writing, there has been no direct contact between U.S. and North Korean officials to work out the details of the meeting, or written confirmation of Kim’s invitation.
By agreeing to a summit meeting with the North Korean leader without the usual preliminary negotiations to assure that it will be successful, Trump is taking a calculated risk and breaking the usual diplomatic rules. The meeting itself amounts to a significant concession to the North Koreans, who have been demanding direct negotiations with the United States to assure its security for decades.
Kim’s invitation to Trump to meet face-to-face was delivered by South Korean government officials. They received the invitation during a meeting with Kim in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang. The current South Korean government has been seeking to reach a peace agreement with North Korea. The two countries have remained in a technical state of war with each other since the 1953 armistice ended the active fighting in the Korean War.
North Korea is a heavily militarized communist dictatorship under Kim’s absolute control. The Stalinist-style totalitarian state is notorious for its brutality, total disregard for human rights and criminal activities worldwide.
Kim is the grandson of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and came to power in 2011, following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. He runs the country ruthlessly, eliminating all potential competitors for power, including members of his own family.
North Korea is a supplier of missiles and nuclear technology to other rogue states around the world and is also accused of selling chemical weapons to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, which he is using against Syria’s civilian population.
A GROWING THREAT OF WAR
The grim logic behind Trump’s decision to accept Kim’s invitation to meet on short notice and with little advance preparations is driven by the rapid escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea during the past year, and a growing threat of war over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Since Trump took office, he has adopted a strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on North Korea to halt its development of nuclear missiles and long range ballistic missiles. The Trump administration has ratcheted up U.S. economic sanctions on Kim’s regime, sponsored resolutions in the U.N. Security Council to condemn and punish North Korea for its provocative weapons tests, and increased diplomatic pressure on China, North Korea’s main diplomatic and economic ally in the international community, to exert its influence on Kim to halt his drive to obtain nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, North Korea has made rapid progress in developing its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, which now pose a serious threat to the U.S. and its main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea.
After each North Korean nuclear or ballistic missile test, the Trump administration has threatened to take military action to halt their weapons programs. Kim has responded by threatening to launch missile attacks on the U.S. military base in Guam and the Hawaiian Islands. This led to an escalating war of words between Trump and Kim, including personal boasts and insults.
NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR THREAT IS REAL
North Korea is believed to have as many as 20 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, and claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb on September 3.
North Korea’s most recent long-range missile test on November 29 demonstrated sufficient range to reach any target on the continental United States. The final step North Korea needs to complete a viable nuclear weapons system is to develop a nuclear warhead that can survive ballistic missile re-entry. U.S. weapons experts believe that North Korea can achieve that goal within a matter of months, giving it the ability to launch nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland.
The Pentagon’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is keeping up the military pressure on Kim’s regime. The strategy document declares, “for North Korea, the survival of the Kim regime is paramount. Our deterrence strategy for North Korea makes clear that any North Korean nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime,”
The NPR’s message to North Korea is clear: “There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive. Further, we will hold the Kim regime fully responsible for any transfer of nuclear weapons technology, material or expertise to any state or non-state actor.”
25 YEARS OF DIPLOMATIC FAILURES
Over the past 25 years, a succession of U.S. presidents, beginning with Bill Clinton, have tried to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program through U.N. Security Council resolutions and multinational diplomatic negotiations. They have been outfoxed at every turn by North Korea’s leaders, who have drawn out the negotiations with infuriating stalling tactics to give them more time to advance their nuclear and missile programs. Ultimately, the talks were either stymied or led to agreements that weren’t worth the paper on which they were written.
After pocketing the benefits of each agreements, North Korea would violate the terms of the accords. They would resume nuclear weapons tests and provocative long-range missile launchings, some of which have overflown Japan.
When efforts by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to end the North Korean nuclear threat ended in failure, they exercised the option of turning their backs on the problem and “kicking the can down the road.”
Barack Obama called his strategy for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, “strategic patience,” a polite phrase camouflaging the fact that Obama was doing nothing while North Korea continued to develop its nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles it needed to deliver them.
TIME TO TAKE KIM SERIOUSLY
Now that the North Koreans are within reach of achieving their nuclear goals. Kim’s threats to launch a nuclear missile attack on U.S. allies in the region or the U.S. homeland must be taken seriously.
Trump recently told a North Korean defector that he accepted Kim’s unexpected invitation to meet because he does not have the same option as his predecessors to “kick the can down the road.” Trump said, “The road really ended. They [previous presidents] could’ve done it 12 years ago. They could’ve done it 20 years ago. They could’ve done it four years ago, and two years ago.” Now, Trump said, “we have no road left.”
The fact that time has run out explains why Trump dispensed with the usual preparations for a summit and agreed to the meeting before any of its details had been worked out.
KIM LOOKING FOR A PEACE TREATY
South Korean media has reported that Kim’s goal in meeting with Trump is to obtain a formal peace treaty with the U.S. that would guarantee the survival of Kim’s regime. Such a treaty would provide diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea. It would also formally conclude the Korean War. Fighting was ended in 1953 by a U.N. sponsored armistice, but no permanent peace agreement was ever signed between North and South Korea. As a result, both countries are still technically at war with each other.
The treaty would provide for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and resolve other issues, such as the continued presence of 28,000 American troops in South Korea, near the North Korean border, and the continuation of annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
WILL KIM GIVE UP HIS NUKES?
It is not clear that Kim would be willing to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in return for an agreement with the U.S. For more than 20 years, the Kim family has made their quest for nuclear weapons the foundation of their grip on power in North Korea. It has been said that Kim believes North Korea’s nuclear capability is his insurance policy against attack by the United States. Kim is also said to believe that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Ghadaffi made a fatal mistake by agreeing to give up their nuclear programs, which eventually enabled them to be attacked and overthrown.
To succeed in his talks with Kim, Trump, who wrote a book called, “The Art of the Deal,” must live up to his reputation for being a tough negotiator, willing to get up and walk away from the table if he believes Kim is not negotiating with him in good faith. Many have suggested that President Obama’s unwillingness to walk away from the negotiating table with Iran was ultimately responsible for the many serious weaknesses in the Iran nuclear deal.
TRUMP’S MAXIMUM PRESSURE CAMPAIGN
Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to the North Korean regime has been confrontational from the outset. It includes toughened economic sanctions, putting North Korea back on the official list of state sponsors of terrorism, and warnings that Trump would launch a nuclear attack that would “totally destroy North Korea,” if it doesn’t stop its threatening behavior.
Trump’s threats prompted a similar response from Kim, with the two leaders publicly trading personal insults. After a North Korean missile test last year, the president denigrated Kim by nicknaming him “little Rocket Man,” recalling the tactics Trump used against his opponents in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Their interchange degenerated into a name-calling contest.
Meanwhile, the North Koreans launched a good will initiative with the South Korean government. It quickly agreed to symbolic North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics South Korea hosted in February.
The North Koreans sent Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to represent their regime at the games, while the U.S. dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to attend the opening ceremonies on February 9. Eager to project a hard line against the North Koreans, Pence committed a diplomatic faux pas, which was taken as an insult by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in.
The South Koreans had hoped to stage manage an encounter between the North Korean and American leaders attending the Olympic Games, but instead it became a missed diplomatic opportunity. However, Kim’s sister did tell the South Korean president that her brother was interested in a summit meeting with the Americans.
To represent the U.S. at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, Trump sent his daughter Ivanka. She avoided any diplomatic embarrassments, and told the South Korean president of her father’s intentions to impose a new set of punitive sanctions on the North Korean economy.
SOUTH KOREANS DELIVERED KIM’S MESSAGE
After the Olympics, Moon sent his national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, and Suh Hoon, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, to discuss the next diplomatic step with Kim and his sister in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
As Chung began his presentation, Kim interrupted him to issue his invitation to Trump calling for them to meet. Kim also expressed his desire for a summit meeting with President Moon at the Peace House in Panmunjom, on the border between North and South Korea in April, and to open a hotline with the South Korean president for use in emergencies.
Chung and Suh then brought Kim’s request for a meeting with Trump to the White House. After the South Koreans outlined Kim’s invitation to senior administration officials, Trump invited them into the Oval Office, and told the South Koreans to tell the world that Trump would accept Kim’s offer.
KIM BLINKED FIRST
The White House interprets Kim’s invitation as an indication that he “blinked” first in his confrontation with Trump. Speculation abounds over why Kim issued the invitation now. Some say he was prompted by the impact of U.S. and U.N. sanctions on North Korea’s economy, which was about to run out of the international currency reserves Kim needed to support his lavish lifestyle. Others suggested he wanted the meeting to tell Trump that the North Koreans had finally achieved their nuclear goals and demand concessions.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the tone of Kim’s message as transmitted to the White House by a high level South Korean delegation persuaded Trump that time was ripe to for him to personally engage.
“This was the most forward-leaning report that we’ve had in terms of Kim Jong Un’s not just willingness but his strong desire for talks,” Tillerson told reporters. “So, I think really what changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way in all honesty that came as a little bit of a surprise to us.”
Tillerson emphasized that accepting the invitation to meet was “a decision the president took himself.”
A HIGH-RISK HIGH REWARD GAMBLE
It was a typical high-risk, high reward Trump move, demonstrating his confidence in his ability to represent America’s diplomatic and security interests, and in his instincts as a dealmaker. The fact that Trump accepted Kim’s invitation without asking for advice from the foreign policy establishment has deeply worried some experts. They have expressed concern that Trump will go into the meeting inadequately prepared to negotiate with North Korea.
North Korean leaders have met with former presidents in the past, including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. They were sent to North Korea as private individuals on special diplomatic missions from the White House. But no sitting president has ever met with a North Korean leader, out of a reluctance to give the rogue country a credibility and prestige it did not deserve.
North Korea’s previous leader, Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, issued an invitation to President Clinton in 2000 to visit the country. Uncertain of the North Korean leader’s intentions, Clinton declined and sent his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, instead.
Clinton was right not to go. Albright’s trip was a waste of time. The North Korean leader had no intention of giving up his missiles and nuclear program. In fact, there is no reason to assume that his son is any more sincere today than his father was 18 years ago.
THE STAKES ARE HIGHER TODAY
But the stakes are much higher than they were then. Today, North Korea’s nuclear threat is very real, and our experience with them proves that another round of conventional diplomatic negotiations over their nuclear and missile programs would be useless.
Trump may be right to believe that he is the only one who might be able to talk Kim back from the nuclear bring. He may also feel an obligation to try every possibility to defuse this dangerous situation before he is forced to seriously consider using military options against North Korea.
The outcome of the clash between the oversized egos of Kim and Trump is unpredictable. But Trump obviously believes that even a slight chance of a breakthrough during his meeting with Kim is preferable to permitting the momentum that has been driving the U.S. and North Korea toward a nuclear confrontation to continue.
Senator Lindsay Graham, who has been one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics, offered cautious praise for Trump’s daring diplomatic gambit.
While the Kim regime has been “all talk and no action,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement, “I do believe that North Korea now believes President Trump will use military force if he has to.”
“A word of warning to North Korean President Kim Jong Un: the worst possible thing you can do is meet with President Trump and try to play him,” Graham added. “If you do that, it will be the end of you and your regime.”
Trump did not reach his decision to meet with Kim on the spur of the moment. In June 2016, a month before Trump accepted the GOP nomination, he first declared his willingness to speak with Kim. “Who. . . cares? I’ll speak to anybody,” Trump said, adding: “There’s a 10 percent or a 20 percent chance that I can talk ‘em out of those . . . nukes.”
CONSULTING WITH U.S. ALLIES
Immediately after plans for the meeting were announced, Trump tweeted, “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain [on North Korea] until an agreement is reached.” Trump also reached out by telephone to the other regional leaders who are most concerned with the nuclear threat from North Korea, China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Japan has watched the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and the growing tensions with the U.S. with increasing alarm. As a result, Japan has now embarked on an effort to shore up its defensive capabilities, which include the purchase in December of the American-made Aegis anti-ballistic missile system in addition to Patriot missiles.
China, as North Korea’s main trading partner and protector, is worried about being shut out of the direct exchange between Trump and Kim. After his phone conversation with China’s President Xi, Trump tweeted, “President XI told me he appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative. China continues to be helpful!”
South Korea has also reached out diplomatically to the leaders of China and Japan to share the details of Kim’s invitation with them and to secure their cooperation in trying to make the meeting between Kim and Trump a success.
WHITE HOUSE SAYS TRUMP WAS PREPARED FOR THE INVITATION
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted Trump would not go through with the meeting “until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea.” The only pre-conditions for the meeting that were part of Kim’s proposal were his promise to suspend further North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile testing and his agreement not to object to the U.S. and South Korea conducting their scheduled annual military exercises as usual.
Administration spokesmen insist that Trump’s decision to meet with Kim was well thought out in advance, and that they knew Kim’s invitation was coming even before the South Koreans delivered it. They also say Kim was forced to respond by Trump’s tough sanctions on North Korea.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told NBC, “I do believe a major reason why they’re having this meeting is because the economic sanctions have had a very big impact on both their economy and their ability to get pieces of material and other things they need for their weapons programs.”
DELAYS AND LIES
The long history of failed negotiations with North Korea shows that they will take advantage of any weakness in their opponents. Experienced diplomats have warned Trump that Kim will try to extend their negotiations. Historically, North Korea has used such talks for cover while they keep working on their weapons, confident they would be immune from attack while the talks drag on.
Kim has told the South Koreans that he will suspend further nuclear and ballistic missile tests until after the meeting, but North Korea’s well-deserved reputation as an untrustworthy negotiating partner casts doubt on hopes that the unprecedented meeting between Trump and Kim will lead to a diplomatic breakthrough.
North Korea has been notorious for its belligerency and for breaking its word for almost 70 years.
WHY NORTH KOREA IS AN INTERNATIONAL PARIAH
During World War II, the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese empire. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the northern half of the peninsula was occupied by the Soviet Union, which established a communist government there in 1948 under Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il sung, while the southern half of the Korean peninsula was ruled, starting in 1948, by the pro-U.S. government of President Syngman Rhee.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea, with Soviet and Chinese military support, invaded and almost overran South Korea, which by that time had its own pro-U.S. government. The U.S. intervened, and with help from the U.N., drove the North Korean army all the way to the border with China. Afraid that North Korea would be forced to surrender to the U.S. and its allies, communist China then intervened militarily on North Korea’s behalf and drove the U.S. forces back, leading to a military stalemate. The fighting was ended by an armistice signed on July 27, 1953, but no permanent peace agreement between the North and South was ever signed.
Since that time, North Korea has become an international pariah. Its criminal activities include the counterfeiting of U.S. currency on a massive scale and international drug smuggling.
Starting in the late 1970s, the North Koreans developed the most authentic-looking counterfeit $50 and $100 bills ever made and circulated them around the world. They were identified as counterfeits by the U.S. Treasury in 1989, which called them “superdollars.” North Korean profits from counterfeiting have been reduced in recent years because the U.S. government has redesigned the $50 and $100 bills to make them more difficult to copy.
North Korea pursued international drug smuggling activities during the same period. Between 1977 and 2003, more than 20 North Korean diplomats, agents and trade officials were arrested for their drug smuggling activities in over a dozen countries around the world. North Korea’s criminal activities and its sale of weapons to rogue states around the world are a major source of its government income, especially since its commercial exports have been sharply reduced by U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
NORTH KOREA’S CONVENTIONAL MILITARY THREAT
North Korea has maintained a threatening posture toward South Korea. Despite its relatively small population, North Korea maintains once of the largest standing armies in the world, with much of it permanently stationed along the border with South Korea running along the 38th parallel.
Even before it developed nuclear weapons, North Korea’s conventional military concentration posed a deadly threat to the 25 million people who live in the metropolitan area of the South’s capital city of Seoul, just a few miles from the border. Many live within range of North Korea’s 8,600 cannons and 5,500 multiple missile launchers in position along the border. In the event of another outbreak of war, the only protection for the civilian population would be to abandon their homes or seek temporary shelter in Seoul’s underground subway system.
North Korea’s army is double the size of the South Korean army. The North also has numerical advantages in combat aircraft, tanks and naval vessels.
To help defend South Korea, the U.S. maintains a permanent force of 28,000 troops stationed a few miles south of the border which runs along the 38th parallel. They would not be sufficient to repel a full scale North Korean ground invasion, but the U.S. troops would act as a “tripwire,” prompting a full intervention by the U.S. military. That would eventually overwhelm the North Koreans, but not before they would inflict a huge number of civilian casualties on Seoul, even without a resort to nuclear weapons.
Since the armistice in 1953, there have been many armed clashes between North and South Korean forces, often involving the islands along the coast of the peninsula whose control is disputed.
The most serious recent incident was the sinking of a South Korean Navy corvette, the ROKS Cheonan, on March 26, 2010. It went down near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, off the Korean peninsula’s west coast, and 46 of the 104 South Korean seamen aboard died. Evidence indicates the ship was torpedoed by a North Korean midget submarine.
The incident ended there. North Korea denied responsibility for the sinking, and South Korea took no military action in response. But the situation between the two sides has remained tense.
HISTORY OF NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR PROGRAM
North Korea began developing its nuclear weapons program in the early 1980s at its nuclear research facility at Yongbyon. The Soviets had helped the North Koreans build a small research reactor there, which became operational in 1965. In 1979, the North Koreans built a second reactor on their own, along with equipment to process uranium ore into reactor fuel rods.
North Korea ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, but it did not agree to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until 1992. The next year, IAEA inspectors found evidence that North Korea had violated the treaty by enriching uranium and other activities related to the development of nuclear weapons. The IAEA referred the case to the U.N. Security Council for disciplinary action.
In 1994, President Clinton was ready to confront the North Koreans militarily over their nuclear violations when former president Jimmy Carter personally intervened. He went to North Korea and negotiated a deal with its leaders on his own, under which North Korea was to receive two civilian nuclear reactors and $5 billion in aid in return for a promise to give up its nuclear weapons program. The deal that emerged was called the Agreed Framework.
The North Koreans got their aid, but reneged on their part of the bargain in 2003 by announcing that they were withdrawing from the NPT. The six party talks for another deal with North Korea began with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. North Korea then ejected the IAEA inspectors from their research reactor at Yongbyon and began reprocessing spent fuel rods to extract plutonium to use as the core for nuclear weapons.
In 2005, after North Korea was confronted by the U.S. with incontrovertible evidence that it was cheating on its promises, it admitted that it had been secretly building nuclear weapons.
The North Koreans exploded their first small nuclear test device in 2006. They then cut another deal through the six-party talks in 2007, again promising to halt their nuclear weapons program in return for fuel and talks to normalize relations with Japan and the U.S.
That deal also fell apart when the North Koreans expelled the IAEA inspectors in 2008.
In 2009, the North Koreans conducted their second nuclear test and started illegal missile tests. One last attempt to cut an arms control deal with the North Koreans was made by the U.S. and its allies in 2012. It, too, failed when North Korea conducted another illegal missile test.
More than 20 years of repeated diplomatic failure has proven that it is impossible to cut a lasting deal with the North Korean regime. International sanctions don’t work, and China cannot be counted upon to keep the rogue regime under control.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME AND OPTIONS
Trump agreed to the take unconventional diplomatic action of agreeing to meet with Kim without any guarantee of success because he has run out of time and any other options, short of war, to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat.
The only real hope that the meeting will succeed is if Kim believes Trump is not bluffing when he threatens to destroy Kim and his regime if North Korea tries to use its nuclear weapons capacity to harm the U.S. or its allies in the region.
President Trump has been accused by his critics of acting irresponsibly by calling the North Korean leader names and threatening him with nuclear destruction, but it now appears that those intimidating tactics, combined with Trump’s negotiating skills, may be the only real hope of preventing a nuclear confrontation with North Korea.