“It looks like we’re on the verge of something impressive,” Steve Doocy told former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in regard to talks with North Korea on Fox & Friends this morning. Rice, however, urged caution, replying that “the North Koreans have a tendency to do this when they’re under pressure.” Rice knows that better than most, having gone a round or two with Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il. Rice, who’s on a book tour this week, offers Trump some advice based on her hard-earned experience starting at the 4:30 mark or so:
“Don’t try to negotiate the details with Kim Jong Un,” Rice told the hosts of “Fox & Friends” in a Tuesday interview. “Leave that to people who understand all the nuances of this situation.”
“Really recognize that others are at stake,” she said. “There are other countries that have interests here. Japan, for instance has interests here. South Korea of course has interests here.” …
“Don’t be anxious about moving American military forces,” she advised the commander in chief. “American military forces are a stabilizing force — not just on the Korean Peninsula, but in the region as a whole.”
Finally, Rice warned the president — who recently praised Kim as “very honorable” — to “never forget” the despotic nature of the North Korean leader’s government.
“This is a regime that murdered an American citizen just a little while ago,” she said. “A regime where the leader had his half-brother murdered in Malaysia using VX gas. A brutal regime. Human rights violations. A death camp for its own citizens. Don’t forget the nature of the regime.”
The “very honorable” remark grated on a number of people, and not without good reasons. Rice just listed the top six, and there are plenty more. However, the “very honorable” comment related directly to the process of putting together the summit, and was intended as nothing more than sweet talk to keep that process moving. It’s still a reminder that Trump has to remain on his toes and vigilant during the process rather than succumbing to flattery and other strategies that have succeeded in past encounters.
Rice’s point is surely not lost on Trump, who spent his first year in office torching Kim on a very personal basis in order to make it clear to both him and China that the US’ hands-off policy was coming to an abrupt end. Rice mentions this and its effect particularly on China, which has changed its stance and pressured Kim into the talks. She notes that both China and Russia agreed to enforce sanctions demanded by the US that pushed North Korean guest workers out of both countries, cutting off one of Kim’s last reliable sources of hard currency.
Doocy is hardly the only person who needs a check on optimism, too. People are openly talking about a Nobel Peace Prize for Trump as though the problem has already been solved. We still have no idea just how sincere Kim is, let alone what he’s willing to negotiate. As I write in my column at The Week, even an earnest effort by Kim to reach a peaceful solution on the Korean Peninsula could wind up going very badly:
Even if Kim has decided to end the war and open diplomatic and economic contacts with the U.S. and others in the region, the context of the talks and necessary concessions is still not clear. Moon and Trump both say that Kim has agreed to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but it’s far from clear that both sides define that in the same manner. Is it just the removal of all nuclear weapons from North and South Korea? Or does it mean, as has been suggested in past talks, that it requires the U.S. to completely withdraw its nuclear arms from the region? Moon says that Kim will not make the presence of American troops in South Korea an issue for the talks, but it seems very doubtful that the Kim regime would abide them for long after a formal reconciliation.
Also, what exactly would peace look like? The state of war between the two nations has existed for 68 years, outstripping living memory for nearly everyone on the peninsula and outside of it. How long does the DMZ remain in place? What limits will each country accept on armed forces on the border, and for how long? Even the question of trade and travel is fraught with the weight of the totalitarian system in the North, when many of their subjects would risk their lives to escape.
That brings us to another question prompted by North Korea’s aim at reintegration as well as reconciliation. Will Kim demand reintegration as a condition of peace — reintegration on Pyongyang’s terms? Could his regime survive reintegration on any other terms? Recall what happened nearly 30 years ago when another wall dividing a nation fell. The East German government didn’t survive long afterward, passing peacefully from the scene after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With a much starker contrast in living conditions across the 38th Parallel, a sudden loosening of the border could turn into a deluge of refugees that could destabilize a highly paranoid regime in Pyongyang, and its collapse might not be anywhere near as peaceful as East Germany’s.
It’s a lot easier to see the many ways this process could fail than the few in which this effort could succeed.
That doesn’t make peace not worth pursuing. But it should remind us that we are a very long way from having achieved anything except a temporary dial-down in tensions and the opening of talks. Those are good starts, but that’s all they are.