Rocket Man redux

When John covered the big announcement out of North Korea last night he hit on many of the positive (or at least potentially positive) aspects of Kim Jong-un’s stated plans. And to be clear, there are definite possibilities for improvement in a very troubled region of the world. Just putting an end to Kim’s bothersome habit of regularly detonating nukes underground (and threatening to do so over the open ocean) while threatening to use them on the west would probably lower the planet’s collective blood pressure by several points. Closing down the nuclear test facilities in North Korea (and possibly even their reactors) would be an important first step toward restoring at least some semblance of normality to the Korean Peninsula.

But with all of that said, I wanted to at least urge a bit of caution on the part of everyone preparing to take a victory lap here. I’m willing to give full credit to President Trump and his rather, shall we say… unorthodox method of conducting international diplomacy for potentially bringing Kim to the table. But even if the proposed summit between the two leaders takes place (and they haven’t even decided on a location yet by all reports), these are only the first steps along a long, rocky road which is probably cluttered with IEDs.

The first thing to remember is that Kim and his entire family have a well-established history of being liars. If he’s making promises, he almost certainly has his fingers crossed behind his back. The ongoing sanctions have hit North Korea so hard that even the well-off are starving at this point. Kim is probably desperate for a deal which will allow more cash, food and goods to begin flowing in and out of his country. But once they’re in a bit better shape, that maniac will almost certainly take any perceived slight or imagined offense as just cause for canceling any progress made to date and returning to his old ways.

Let’s just say for the moment that the offer is genuine, however. This summit could still go entirely pear-shaped because of what North Korea is offering (or more critically, what they’re not offering) and what they’ll be demanding in return. So far all we’re hearing is that the weapons testing and new missile construction will end, along with shuttering their nuclear testing facility. That’s a nice starting point, but there’s no mention of dismantling the weapons they’ve already built nor are we hearing anything about Kim being willing to allow IAEA inspectors to freely access their facilities. Without any sort of trusted verification, these promises are relatively worthless. And there’s zero indication that he’s ready to reduce his massive stockpile of shorter-range, conventional weapons currently pointed at South Korea, Japan and the rest of his neighbors.

And what will Kim want in exchange for this new, dawning era of love and peace? Politico checked in with some South Korean analysts who seem to have a handle on what he’s looking for and President Trump’s not going to be wild about it if they’re correct.

But now comes the hard part, according to a number of leading North Korea and arms control experts.

They agreed that Pyongyang is likely to seek historic concessions in return for its promises – including some that may be difficult for the Trump administration to swallow.

Some likely demands include a peace treaty with the United States to replace the fragile armistice still in place from the Korean War, full diplomatic relations with Washington, and major commitments on trade and investment that Kim is seeking to resurrect the communist nation’s failing economy.

The most difficult hurdle will be determining how North Korea’s full disarmament would be achieved — and that it can be trusted to stick to an agreement given its long history of breaking its word.

That sounds about right. In addition to massive levels of aid and trade (which shouldn’t be entirely out of the question if the Dear Leader is bargaining in good faith), Kim Jong-un will be looking for a seat at the table as a fully recognized leader of a nation which has joined the nuclear weapons club. It’s what his family has been fighting to achieve for three generations now and he’s unlikely to walk away from that goal. If he’s not promising full disarmament, but only a cessation of new construction, it’s a safe bet that he thinks he’s got enough of a stockpile of nukes and missiles to force the rest of the world to respect him.

If that’s the deal Kim is looking for and he actually got it, then he wins and the west has lost the battle. The new normal will be a North Korea with nukes. Their leader will still be an unstable crackpot. His people will probably still live inside a hermit kingdom, cut off from news and access to the rest of the world. The peasants will simply have a bit more rice in their dinner bowls.

Does that mean Trump shouldn’t even try? Of course not. Even in a worst-case scenario, this could calm the waters for a few years and give us more time to focus our attention on other parts of the world that are falling apart, particularly places like Turkey and Venezuela. But returning to a Lord of the Rings metaphor for a moment, a deal such as the one I outlined above won’t be the equivalent of tearing down Sauron’s tower. We’re just locking him up in Mordor, and that problem will come back to haunt the west sooner or later.