The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Time will tell.
Tonight’s announcement by the South Korean national security adviser that President Trump and Kim Jung Un will meet sometime before May is already being widely hailed as a major step forward in defusing the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It could end up being exactly that, make no mistake. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. We’ve been down this road once before in 1994. The US was coming perilously close to launching a military operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program while it was still in the embryonic stage. Pyongyang was feeling the heat, sanctions were impacting North Korea as it dealt with a major famine. Kim Jong Il, who had just taken over the duties of premier following the death of his father Kim Il Sung, indicated he wanted to open the door to negotiations with the United States.
Negotiations were held and brought about the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang gave up its ambitions for a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons grade material in exchange for US assurances it would not attack, as well as light water reactors that were resistant to nuclear proliferation uses. The agreement was troubled from the beginning, and as soon as US attention was diverted to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, the North Koreans bailed on the agreement entirely. A few short years later Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.
Kim Jong Un is trying something similar now. Pressure is building and the regime is starting to feel the pinch from sanctions. The odds are not in favor of Trump and Kim meeting face to face, let alone in favor of them reaching an agreement that ends the crisis once and for all. In all probability the North Koreans will conjure up a superficial excuse to use as justification for canceling the talks at the last minute. And in all likelihood they will lay the blame square on the United States.
In short, don’t be fooled by Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive, or apparent sincerity. He’s buying time, nothing more. The White House knows this is probably true, as does the Pentagon. Contrary to the beliefs of many people tonight, the US-North Korean standoff might be entering its most dangerous phase, instead of reaching a point where tensions begin to diminish for real.
North Korea has laid out an offer it hopes cannot be refused by Seoul and Washington. During two days of talks in Pyongyang with envoys from South Korea, the North said it was willing to begin negotiations with the United States aimed at denuclearization, and would impose a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests during those talks. In a statement released by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it was said that North Korea made it clear that it would have no reason to keep its nuclear weapons if the military threat to the country was eliminated and its security guaranteed. It is obvious that the North regards the United States as the primary military threat to its security, and survival.
Pyongyang also claims to want to make progress on the unification front, though on this subject their sincerity is even more questionable. Unification in the North is defined as reuniting the Korean peninsula under the rule of Kim’s regime. It means something quite different south of the DMZ, naturally. Both nations are moving forward with talks aimed at a late-April summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon. It would be the first Inter-Korean summit meeting in eleven years. On the subject of the annual US-South Korean military exercises to be held in April, Kim Jong Un claimed to understand why they needed to be held, though if the situation between the two Koreas stabilizes, he expects the size of the exercises to be adjusted.
The South Koreans were caught off guard by the flexibility of the North’s positions, Kim’s willingness to negotiate, and even give up his nuclear weapons under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, Seoul appears to be delighted with what the talks in Pyongyang have produced, both in substance and potential. Washington’s reaction will presumably be more guarded and pessimistic. North Korea’s newfound candor is out of character. Until concrete proof is presented to the White House, the Trump administration will remain hopeful, but regard Pyongyang’s words and promises as nothing more than Kim Jong Un selling a bill of goods.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is beginning 2018 with a round of diplomatic maneuvering intended to relieve at least some of the pressure his government is facing. The target of Pyongyang’s effort is South Korea. In his New Year speech, Un proposed the idea of sending athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics which are being held in South Korea. With the games fast approaching, both nations appear to be willing to work towards reaching an agreement that will allow the North to send a delegation to Pyeongchang. There is much work to be done in order for that to happen, but the two nations are moving forward cautiously in the hope that North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics can become a reality. Pyongyang has reopened a communications line with the South ostensibly to aid discussions on the Olympic subject.
From a more cynical realpolitik vantage point, the North Korean overtures are the right play at the right moment. Pyongyang needs a victory of some type and the most expeditious route to achieving one runs directly through Seoul. South Korea’s liberal government is sincerely enthusiastic about the possibility of both Koreas participating in the Olympics. There is hope that a showing of goodwill now might blossom into meaningful dialogue and warmer relations down the line.
Strangely enough, Kim Jong Un is probably hoping for the same thing, but for completely different reasons. The North Korean leader is rolling the dice on the chance that his effort to improve relations with the South might help to drive a wedge in the US-South Korea relationship and buy the North some much needed relief at a critical moment. Despite his immaturity, Kim is probably aware that time is running out for him and for North Korea. Every day that goes by brings the US closer to choosing the military option for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. There are many pundits and self-declared experts who predict a US military effort against North Korea will result in heavy civilian casualties and unparalleled destruction across the region. For what it’s worth, I disagree with their views on military action wholeheartedly. However, the one area where I agree with my counterparts is the future of Kim Jong Un in the event of war.
In short, there would be no future for him or his regime. Regardless of what happens to his nuclear program, his country, and the entire region, if the United States goes kinetic, Kim Jong Un will not survive the conflict.
Vigilant Ace 18 is underway in South Korea, and the large US-ROK exercise has not gone unnoticed by North Korea. Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise held to increase interoperability between the US Air Force, and RoK Air Force, though aircraft from the US Navy and USMC will also participate. As is the case with every major military exercise that takes place in or around Korea, this one has drawn the ire of North Korea’s leadership. Pyongyang labeled the exercise as a ‘grave provocation’ that could escalate tensions to ‘the brink of nuclear war.’ In a statement released by state-controlled media, it was noted this exercise is happening at a time ‘when insane President Trump is running wild.’ This sort of commentary is standard fare when US and ROK forces stage military exercises. The current crisis in the region adds a dramatic flair to the Pyongyang’s recent statements, of course.
With the rising tensions caused by North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test, the inclusion of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning II aircraft in Vigilant Ace is quite possibly causing sleepless nights for many North Korean generals. Despite their propaganda boasts that suggest otherwise, North Korea deeply fears US airpower. A future US military action against the North will be heavily reliant on airpower, and include large numbers of the latest generation US fighters. The fact that a respectable number of these aircraft are now in theater gives Pyongyang food for thought.
In Washington over the weekend, remarks by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seem to suggest the White House is resigning itself to the grim reality that the North Korean crisis will probably not be resolved favorably through peaceful means alone. The Trump administration has certainly allotted a respectable amount of time to pursue more stringent economic sanctions, and potential diplomatic resolutions. Sadly, there has been minimal progress on either front. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs continue ahead at full speed. Depending on how close Pyongyang is to reaching their goal of obtaining an operational ICBM, the United States could be forced to move militarily sooner rather than later.
The prospect of military action in the near future gives Vigilant Ace 18 added priority and deepens the sense of urgency which seems to be gathering around the crisis at the moment.