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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly captured the world’s attention with his state-of-the-nation address on Thursday. The speech centered on the unveiling of a supposedly new generation of Russian nuclear weapons designed to be invulnerable to all US defenses. Some of the weapons that Putin described seemed to spring straight from the script of a Dr Strangelove sequel. An ICBM with more range, and capable of carrying more warheads than any before it, a stealthy long-range cruise missile, and a high speed, extended-range torpedo ideal for use against port facilities and US carrier groups. Along with the unveiling of new weapons, Putin issued a stark warning that Russia would use these weapons, as well as its older nuclear weapons against Europe and the United States in response to an attack on Russia.
Putin’s saber-rattling was well received domestically, which makes sense considering the speech was geared towards the domestic audience. This is, after all, an election year for Putin, and even though he is expected to easily win another term, keeping his base satisfied is important. Internationally, the speech raised eyebrows, and triggered concern about an impending nuclear arms race. The US government reactions were somewhat blasé. For many in Washington, Putin’s talk of a fielding a new generation of nuclear weapons was nothing new, and lacked substance. This is not the first instance of Putin rattling his saber directly at the United States, and it likely will not be the last.
For Russia, Putin’s bluster came at just the right time. February was difficult month on the international front. Russian combat losses spiked in Syria as the conflict there teeters on the brink of expanding and escalating. The bloody stalemate continues in eastern Ukraine, and the first shipments of US weapons are expected to begin arriving in Ukraine within days. Putin’s speech will do much to perk up Russian citizens and help them forget that their country’s two major foreign adventures appear fated to drag on with no end in sight for quite some time yet.
Although the 2018 Winter Olympics in Peyongchang have come to an end, do not expect world attention to be fully removed from the Korean peninsula at any point in the near future. Instead, the focus is going to shift one hundred and eighty kilometers to the northwest, beyond the DMZ to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. After two weeks of basking in the adoration of the global media, and reaping the benefits of its well-orchestrated propaganda, and charm offensive, Kim Jong Un’s regime has returned to reality. The problems facing North Korea and its government before the Olympics began are still there, and appear to be intensifying at a brisk clip.
The Trump administration has unveiled a new round of economic sanctions aimed at the North and its nuclear weapons program. The United States continues to push hard for a stronger global stance on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile inventories, and programs. The Pentagon, and White House are under no illusions about the primary purposes behind the Kim’s propaganda offensive. Pyongyang needs to path as many obstacles in the path of the US in order to prevent it from launching military action against North Korea. Even more so, the North needs time to bring its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities to the point where Kim Jong Un feels his nation will be invulnerable to US attack. Once a functioning ICBM mated with a nuclear warhead exists in the North Korean arsenal, that’s the ballgame in Un’s eyes. The US will back off, seek ways to coexist with Pyongyang, and, most important, treat North Korea as an equal among nations. In other words, this is Kim’s pipedream fantasy.
On Sunday, a North Korean delegate at the Olympics indicated his nation is open to possible talks with the US. There was no meeting between US and North Korean officials during the games. Before the opening ceremonies though, Vice President Pence was expected to meet with the North Korean representative, but the North cancelled the meeting at the last second. Now, it would appear that Pyongyang is dangling the prospect of negotiations in front of the US in an effort to make it appear to the world that the North Korean government is making a sincere effort to defuse tensions. Seoul is also pushing for US-North Korean talks. The sticking point is the inclusion of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the talks. The Trump administration has stated the subject must be addressed in any talks with North Korea, while Pyongyang, unsurprisingly, wants the subject to be excluded from future talks with the US.
In other words, North Korea has no intentions of ending its nuclear program, or halting development of an ICBM. Kim doesn’t expect negotiations with the United States to produce anything of value other than to buy more time for his nuclear and ballistic missile programs to reach the next level. And that has been the purpose behind North Korea’s actions for some time now.