Assuming that President Trump actually goes through with a meeting with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, we’ve been assured that his number one priority will be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But what does that actually mean? I’m fairly sure that most Americans would sign on for a definition involving Kim destroying his stockpile of nuclear warheads and ICBMs along with shutting down his reactors and facilities capable of producing weapons-grade materials. Do you suppose that’s what Kim thinks?
At the Washington Post, Anne Gearan prepares people for the possibility that Trump and Kim mean two very different things when using that phrase and if an agreement is reached, it may satisfy no one.
The unwieldy term is typically part of a stock phrase, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” that U.S. officials have used for more than a decade to mean that North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons.
Those weapons are the main leverage that North Korea holds, whether it sits down to bargain or not, and Kim has publicly declared that he will never give them up.
For him, denuclearization probably means, at most, some far-off possibility that he will downsize or get rid of his country’s nuclear arsenal, which he can dangle as leverage for help averting economic catastrophe and shoring up his family dynasty, Asia experts said. To Kim, it may also mean assurances that the United States won’t replace the nuclear weapons it pulled out of South Korea more than 25 years ago. It could even mean the end of the large deployment of U.S. forces there.
Some of the Asian analysts quoted for that report don’t see Kim Jong-un’s weapon stockpile as just a badge of honor or a negotiating chip. The main reason that Kim won’t give up his nukes is that he doesn’t want to wind up like Gaddafi, getting dragged out of a drainage pipe by an angry mob and having a couple of slugs pumped into his head. That’s the conundrum facing Iran in some ways whenever discussions of their nuclear program come up. They have two examples to guide them: Libya and North Korea. A quick look at the status of the leaders of those two nations probably give them all the answers they need.
But what could President Trump accept as an answer from Kim Jong-un which would constitute a “deal” he could come back home and point to as a success? A freeze on new weapons development would be a start, but Kim already has enough firepower to do an ungodly amount of damage in his own backyard even if he can’t reach the continental United States reliably with a missile yet. (Still an unknown factor.) Would a promise from a foreign nation that’s broken those same promises over and over again for decades be worth anything?
Gearan predicts that Kim’s definition would be little more than such a freeze and even then only if it comes with promises of no return of western nukes to South Korea and probably the drawing down of our forces there. Neither of these seem like definitions which either leader can sell back home, and there just doesn’t seem to be any middle ground between the two which would satisfy both parties to the point where they could declare victory and abandon the field.
Part of me wants to believe that Trump wouldn’t be considering taking the meeting unless he had something in mind that could work. But for the life of me, I can’t imagine what that might be.