WASHINGTON, DC: The upcoming summit between Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un in Singapore is so unlikely by the standards of traditional diplomacy that it would have never happened at all had anyone else but Donald Trump been in the White House.
Without doubt, that it is occurring is a tribute to a tenacious campaign by Trump in close coordination with China, South Korea, and Japan. Seizing the opportunity of a meeting with Kim when it was offered, Trump is accelerating the scale and scope of what can be achieved by recognizing the opportunity at hand.
A turning point for North Korea
There is a genuine chance for a significant turning point on the Korean peninsula. Kim Jung Un has the chance to become the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea, giving up his nuclear arsenal in exchange for his survival and a future of economic prosperity for his people.
Keep in mind that Kim has only recently consolidated his grip on power within North Korea. Accordingly, succession and holding power in North Korea has always been a complicated bloody game. Kim Jung Un came to power into a fossilized Stalinist system at the ungodly youthful age of 27, facing a precarious future.
His first and only instincts these last 7 years, until recently, was his own survival. Factionalism in North Korea among the elites is a particularly dangerous pastime.
It is famously cited that Kim had his own Uncle and mentor, Jang Song-Thaek, executed in a gruesome fashion. He has had thousands of top cadre executed in a brutal display of bloodletting that either would destroy him, or consolidate his position.
In that context, Kim pursued nuclear weapons as much to win the internal struggle as to challenge the West. It was his ace in the hole. Kim devoted massive amounts of dwindling resources and monetary reserves to building a nuclear arsenal.
Using the Nuclear Arsenal for internal and external objectives
He then used this hardline exercise to win the internal struggle in North Korea, creating a position that could not be opposed, and exposing and dispatching his enemies over that time.
To that end, he had other objectives. He wanted to show he had an arsenal. He wanted his regime to survive. He wanted the attention of the United States.
He achieved remarkable progress. He even set off a hydrogen bomb. He claimed to have a miniaturized atomic device. He tested ever more threatening ballistic missiles. North Korea showed breathtaking leaps in their abilities.
Now frankly, its hard to believe they made all these advancements without covert or overt help, from China or Russia, or Pakistan. Nonetheless, Kim made progress while using that success to further consolidate power at home.
The effectiveness of the American response
The threats and bellicose rhetoric of the last year as the North Korean threat rose in our consciousness were a genuine expression of American resolve after decades of timid behavior.
However, America pushing back against Kim wasn’t really bad news for him. He now genuinely had our attention. It gave him an external enemy domestically, and set up the next phase of events.
Let’s face it. Susan Rice and the Obama administration took the position that the world would have to accept the DPRK with nuclear weapons. To be sure, American policy for 40 years had been weak and ineffective.
In contrast, Trump took a different approach, threatening North Korea publicly, turning up the heat, and coordinating sanctions with China on an unprecedented level.
Then came the winter Olympics, the invitation for Trump, and the spring thaw. Having accepted the invitation and skipping years of diplomatic song and dance, Trump is ready to put on the table what Kim Jung Un will not be able to resist.
How Kim is using this moment to pivot, because he has to
Because it’s really all about survival. Acquiring a nuclear arsenal help solidify Kim’s control on the country, kept him alive, and allowed him to consolidate his position.
Now he has the world as a stage. Now he is an equal with the President of China Xi Jinping and the President of the United States. This in itself is an enormous victory for Kim and North Korea.
But it’s also win/win for the US. The deal is being baked into the cake, after all the preparations and summits with South Korea and China. The groundwork has been laid.
Its about survival. And Kim Jung Un doesn’t need his nuclear weapons to survive if these talks are successful. Not externally or internally.
America’s objectives – denuclearization, peace, security, stability, investment
The team on the American side is more than impressive. Mike Pompeo, CIA director Gina Haspell, NSC chief John Bolton and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are no shrinking violets.
Mike Pompeo states that there is a substantial understanding between him and Kim about the future of the Korean peninsula. America’s objectives are crystal clear: a complete verifiable denuclearization of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.
In return Kim gets a peace treaty to end the Korean War, recognition by the United States, the opportunity to survive without invasion, and the chance to lead his country in a new direction.
By all indications, and in frank discussions, Kim is remarkably open about his country’s backwardness. To be sure he knows the roads are bad, and people are starving. He knows the road to survival runs through economic development.
Kim’s objectives: recognition, survival, economic growth, a grand bargain
He also finally achieved what his father and grandfather never could. He has gotten one on one recognition from the United States.
A treaty and normal relations have been goals of North Korea since 1953. The intervening decades have not been kind to the people of North Korea. Now that he has consolidated his grip on North Korea, and raised his prestige internationally, Kim is in a position to make the grand bargain.
To this end he has little other choice. South Korea, China, and Japan are prepared to invest huge sums in modernizing and integrating North Korea into the regional economy.
Kim and his sister, presumably, will reign over the several years of negotiations and subsequent 10 years of transitional developments.
The model is China, and Deng Xiaoping. The goal for Kim is to keep power under a one-party state and control the development dollars, doling them out to much of the current elite.
Change may be slow and a little unsavory, but genuine peace will lead to genuine change. The goal is to transition the North Korean state without collapsing it.
Seizing the moment, while the iron is hot
Kim can’t afford his arsenal anymore. He had depleted his cash reserves. He couldn’t sustain it. The Chinese sanctions had severed their cash flow. Once Kim can’t pay off his elites anymore he is threatened with instability.
So the moment is now. Trump has accepted the invite. The meeting with South Korea has been a resounding success. Kim is pragmatic and open. Moon comes to him with a Marshall plan for North Korea.
In two summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kim elevated his status and showed his confidence in making foreign travel without being overthrown. But it was also laid out for him the outline of the grand bargain to come.
Deng Xiaoping opened China in the 1980’s to its current wave of stunning development as an economic powerhouse. Kim Jung Un is apparently prepared to do the same.
What the agreement may look like
He is betting he can do this and retain the one-party state. He is betting that he will lead the transition. He has seen it done in China. He is certain that it is an opportunity he has to seize now.
Trump is in a position to achieve a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The arrangements with China and the expectation of what is to come are already being set in stone. It’s the first major step of many to come.
In 20 years North Korea will look a lot more like China than it does now. Natural integration with South Korea thru roads, rail lines and commerce will be spurred by waves of commercial and infrastructure investment.
To that end, Kim has made clear that he knows a verifiable inspection and denuclearization is a minimum necessity for the United States. He is prepared to grant that.
Kim and Trump: Closing the deal, following through
Kim has already won. He is alive. He survived 7 years running North Korea. He consolidated his power, however ruthlessly. He has the recognition of the United States. He is meeting with the President. He is in close consult with the President of China. He is at the center of events in Asia.
Now he has to pull it off. Trump and Kim will more than earn a Nobel Peace Prize, like Teddy Roosevelt did in 1905, if they do. They will certainly deserve it more than Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1972.
Political integration and the lifting of the police state in North Korea are moral dilemmas, especially for Kim. All promises made and dealings initiated with this rogue regime must be undeniably verified. Kim knows that.
But he also knows his army is malnourished. He also knows he’s massively outgunned. He knows he’s running out of money. He also knows a shooting war would be suicide.
But he has played his cards with great skill so far. Talk about punching above your weight. Indeed he has managed to create the momentum for breakthrough events out of the midst of great chaos. Now he has to follow the natural flow of these events and take North Korea on a new path.
All indications are that’s what is happening. Those are the signs we are seeing from Secretary Pompeo. The prospect of a seismic change for the better on the Korean peninsula is imminent.
What the future holds: Korea and Iran
By all means it’s a potent lesson to Iran and any others confronting the new American doctrine of assertive behavior in defense of American interests.
All of this won’t be accomplished in one meeting. Years of follow-up negotiations on specifics and a timetable for denuclearization will have to be implemented. The change in tone and behavior will be unmistakable. It has to be.
The difference is that the parties, all parties, are sincerely committed to the outcome. All parties, including China, will guarantee the agreement.
Whatever deal is reached bilaterally, the Korean War was a UN police action. A treaty to end the war would have to involve South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States.
But the tone has been set by this historic summit and the preparations being made before it. Fulcrum points in history are creating by powerful men taking risks towards common sense solutions.
Lessons learned…future prospects
Indeed, the possibilities this coming agreement carries for all of Asia and the world is monumental. The symbolism for a future path in Iran is unmistakable.
Instead of capitulating to aggression, the fierce defense of American interests in the cause of justice and world order is irreversible, justified and necessary. Only when the threat has been confronted can a pathway to a better future be negotiated. This is happening in North Korea as we speak.
That’s a lesson Kim Jung Un seems to have accepted. It will rebound to the everlasting benefit of his people. Let’s hope they are paying attention in Tehran. They ought to be.