It appears that the on-again/off-again summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will actually happen. As the world watches, hopes are high for peace on the Korean Peninsula, but it is unlikely that the North Koreans will disarm. Here’s why.
North Korea has a long history of scamming American presidents. Since the North Korean nuclear age began, the country has had several rounds of peace talks – and made several deals – with several presidents. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a deal in which the US and its allies provided the North with $4 billion in energy aid, including two nuclear reactors that could not manufacture weapons-grade material. In exchange, North Korea was supposed to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Instead, North Korea announced in 2002 that it had nuclear weapons. President Bush, who had called North Korea a part of the “Axis of Evil,” removed North Korea from the state terror list in order to advance the Six Party Talks, which also included South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. The group came to an agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for food and energy aid.
Instead, the North Koreans announced in 1996 that they had exploded a nuclear weapon. The Obama Administration applied sanctions in coordination with the UN Security Council. In 2012, Kim Jong Un agreed to halt nuclear tests in exchange for more aid, but the North continued to test both nuclear weapons and missiles.
For more than 20 years, North Korea’s modus operandi has been to rattle its saber and extort aid from the West and East Asian democracies. Over the past two years, they tried the same thing with Donald Trump. To his credit, President Trump did not fall for this tired North Korean gambit.
When President Trump responded to North Korea’s saber rattling with saber rattling of his own, Kim Jong Un proved that he is a rational actor rather than a crazy person. Instead of continuing to escalate the situation, Kim backed off.
This doesn’t mean that Kim Jong Un is willing to bargain away North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It just means that he has shifted tactics. He is no longer playing the unhinged warmonger. Instead Kim is now using flattery and, if Donald Trump’s past behavior is any indication, flattery will get you everywhere. In the past, Trump has shown that he is eager to hit back when attacked, but he is equally eager to return flattery when complimented.
President Trump may also have benefitted from a good timing. The Wall Street Journal reported in April, about the same time that Kim Jong Un’s détente began, that the North Korean nuclear testing site was unusable. The underground testing site collapsed after the last nuclear test there in September 2017, a large explosion that is suspected to have been a hydrogen bomb. It was after this test that Kim announced a halt to nuclear tests. On May 24, the North Koreans destroyed the tunnels to the already-useless nuclear test site, possibly to prevent the release of radioactive material as well as for public relations purposes.
So far, Kim Jong Un has made three concessions. The first was to stop nuclear testing, which Kim said was now unnecessary because the North’s nuclear capability had been “verified.” At the same time, the North suspended long-range missile tests. North Korea would have probably had to suspend testing anyway until a new facility could be constructed. The third concession was the release of three Americans held prisoner in North Korea. It is worth noting that similar promises have been made to previous presidents.
In contrast, Kim Jong Un has already extracted several concessions from President Trump. The first is Trump’s agreement to bilateral talks. In the past, it has been American policy to conduct Six Party talks with all the regional powers rather than bowing to North Korean demands for direct talks. President Trump also agreed to the North Korean summit." without preconditions, something that past Republicans such as John McCain and Mitt Romney sharply criticized President Obama for considering.
President Trump also canceled a B-52 Stratofortress training mission over South Korea in May after North Korea threatened to withdraw from the summit. Trump previously agreed to postpone another exercise last January in order to “de-conflict the Olympics.”
In the final analysis, Kim Jong Un is willing to meet with President Trump because it offers him prestige and the opportunity to wheedle more concessions out of the US. What Kim won’t do is put North Korean nuclear weapons on the table.
The North Korean regime has one overriding goal and that is survival. The Kim family has survived 70 years of antagonism with the US for two reasons. First, they have the protection of China and, second, the have nuclear weapons. The North Koreans will maintain their nuclear arsenal as a hedge against the possibility that China will sell them out.
The North Koreans have watched several dictators topple over the past 50 years. The Taliban fell in 2002. Saddam Hussein in 2003. Before that there was Manuel Noriega. Kim probably learned a compelling lesson from the case of Muammar Gaddafi, who voluntarily gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 and then was killed with his sons less than 10 years later at the hands of rebels backed by European armies. Kim presumably wants to avoid this fate and knows that his nuclear weapons are the biggest obstacle to regime change on the Korean Peninsula.
“What Kim is unclear about is that he has concerns about whether his country can surely trust the United States over its promise to end hostile relations (with North Korea) and provide a security guarantee if they do denuclearization,” South Korean President Moon told ABC News.
Kim has obviously watched President Trump’s numerous flip-flops over the past few years as well as the unfolding rejection of President Obama’s Iran deal. Going back further, President Obama did not honor the security agreement with Ukraine during Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The North Koreans certainly understand that a deal made with one US president may not be honored by the next. Given the national paranoia and the long history of hostility between the two countries, the chances are extremely remote that Kim Jong Un would agree to nuclear disarmament, which would put his regime at the mercy of presidential whims.
It hasn’t helped that the Trump Administration has openly likened North Korea to Libya. Vice President Mike Pence said, “This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn't make a deal,” a statement which Kim would obviously interpret as a threat.
Kim Jong Un is caught between a rock and a hard place. He cannot disarm and his threats no longer work. Without nuclear weapons, he cannot keep the world at bay and continue to prop up his regime. Without aid from other countries, his grasp on the country could also become weaker as he struggles to feed North Korea’s population.
With two untenable options, Kim’s plan is to change strategy and use flattery to extract promises of aid from President Trump. It may take years, but, after the summit is over, look for North Korea to restart its nuclear program and missile testing once the heat dies down.
Originally published on The Resurgent