Godspeed, Trump and Kim. What’s the backup plan?

By Albert R Hunt / BLOOMBERG

The rapid about-face in relations between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, from one marked by insults and invective to the verge of what is billed as an historic face-to-face meeting, is welcome (assuming it actually happens).

Success would be in the whole world’s interest. Trump always wants a win. Kim wants punishing economic sanctions lifted and guarantees of long-term survival. South Korea wants to avoid a cataclysmic conflict on the Korean peninsula. So do China and Japan.

Success seems less likely, though, than the possibility that a meeting would produce yet another false start, perhaps a dangerous one. Over the past quarter-century there have been much-hyped agreements to restrain North Korea’s nuclear-weapons ambitions, followed by cheating in Pyongyang and aggressive escalation.

Today, the hope that Kim might relinquish his nuclear weapons is a false one. The best Trump can get is a verifiable freeze in a programme that’s probably close to being able to strike a US target.

There’s concern in Washington and elsewhere that the US is ill-prepared for another round of talks. Trump is out of his depth. A day after the sudden announcement of the agreement to talk, the White House was backtracking, suggesting there may be some preconditions to a meeting; this underscores the lack of consideration in the president’s impetuous decision to meet with Kim.

There still hasn’t been any direct contact with North Korea. The Trump administration lacks expertise on Korea. There’s not enough intelligence on Kim, and the American public is in the dark.

So, for all the excitement over last Thursday night’s announcement of the overtures that produced the upcoming talks, made at the White House by South Koreans, the fundamental problems and perils are unchanged. The talks, which are supposed to take place at an undetermined locale by the end of May,

would be between Trump and Kim, but China is a looming presence. Trump likes to claim that China has lots of leverage with North Korea, since about 80% of Pyongyang’s trade is with its giant neighbour.

Yet, the reality is that these two countries have contempt for one another; their alliance is a marriage of convenience. The Chinese ambassador to North Korea has never met Kim. China hates the idea of a nucleararmed North Korea, but hates even more the prospect of a regime collapse resulting in an American-dominated Korean peninsula.

How about Trump’s threat of a preemptive strike? Is that his fallback if talks fail?

It has been seriously discussed, and Trump claims that this threat, along with tough economic sanctions, forced Kim to the bargaining table.

Yet, even in the unlikely event that US bombs could quickly take out all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, that would leave 10,000 artillery batteries that could hit Seoul and its 10 million people only 35 miles (56km) away from the border. Not to mention vulnerable US military bases.

Some North Korea hawks argue that Kim is a delusional madman. If that’s the case, then all options for dealing with him are bad, and the goal must be to choose the one that does the least harm, even if that involves widespread death and destruction. But there’s another informed perspective.

Consider the view of Jung Pak, a Brookings Institution scholar who for nine years was a leading North Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. In a recent interview with Politico’s Susan Glasser, Pak said that Kim is “more rational than suicidal”. He doesn’t want a military confrontation in which he would be eradicated, which would occur if he struck first.

Though a murderous dictator, he has looked pretty shrewd: Sending his photogenic sister last month to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, where she was a big hit, displaying a sunny exterior in meetings with South Korean officials and initiating talks with Trump. He desperately wants to end punishing economic sanctions, begun under President Barack Obama and toughened under the Trump administration.

And his successful missile tests over the past year bring him to the negotiating table in a stronger position than North Korean leaders enjoyed in the past. That’s one reason that there’s virtually no chance that he will get rid of his nuclear weapons.

“It’s simply inconceivable that he will accept full denuclearisation at this point,” said Colin Kahl, a national security expert at Stanford University and former foreign policy advisor to former VP Joe Biden. Many Korea-watchers note that the North Koreans often cite the example of Libya’s Moammar Al Qaddafi, who gave up his nuclear programme and later was overthrown and killed.

It’s important to hear soon from former officials who participated in the earlier failed agreements with North Korea. If the goal is a weapons freeze, how could it be guaranteed and subject to vigorous inspections? What are acceptable tradeoffs? Gradually easing sanctions? Suspending military exercises in the region? Maybe even a peace treaty, which never was signed when Korean War stopped in 1953? There are seasoned foreign-policy experts in the Trump administration’s deliberations, notably Defence Secretary James Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. But expertise on the Korean peninsula is thin.

A top State Department expert, Joseph Yun, recently left, and the White House nixed the planned appointment of the eminently qualified Victor Cha to be ambassador to Seoul after the former national security official in the administration of President George W Bush privately cautioned about the dangers of a preemptive strike.

Immediately after the announcement of direct talks, Cha warned in a New York Times Op-Ed column that the initiative “raises more questions than answers”.

“In years of dealing with North Korea, I have learned that the regime never gives anything away for free,” he wrote. Failed negotiations, he added, “could push the two countries to the brink of war”.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.