I think I know why President Donald Trump suddenly agreed to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after a year of mutual threats and verbal abuse.
Anything short of a complete breakdown at the talks would virtually guarantee Trump next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, it would seem bigger and shinier than the one they gave to Barack Obama, because Obama hadn’t actually earned it. He got it just for being a nice guy.
Oh, no, wait a minute. If they gave it to Trump they’d also have to give it to Kim Jong-un, and that would be even sillier. Yet there probably won’t be a complete breakdown at the talks, which are due by May, because both men are strongly motivated to make them look successful.
Kim’s minimum goal is to establish North Korea as a legitimate sovereign state that is accepted by other sovereign states (including the United States) as an equal. Just having a one-on-one discussion with Trump about the security problems of the Korean peninsula gives him that. He will do his best to keep the meeting civil, and under no circumstances will he break off the talks first.
Trump’s main goal is to look good—to get a ‘win’—and Kim’s advisers will have told him to let Trump win something. It doesn’t much matter what, so long as Trump can wave it in the air and claim victory when he gets home. But it will definitely not be an enforceable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s new nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.
Look at it from Kim Jong-un’s standpoint. Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear weapons programme (involuntarily) after the first Gulf War in 1990-91, and twelve years later the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam, and hanged him. Well, the new Iraqi regime provided the rope and the gallows, but the US invasion would never have happened if Saddam had really had nuclear weapons.
Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his quest for nuclear weapons too. It never really amounted to much, but it worried Western powers enough to make them leave him alone most of the time. Then Gaddafi handed over all his pathetic scraps of nuclear weapons-related technologies—and NATO airpower subsequently backed the tribal rebels who finished him off with a bayonet up his backside.
So if the U.S. sees you as a problem and you value your life, don’t stop until you get your nukes, and never give them up. The North Koreans understand this lesson very well.
No promise Trump could make would persuade the North Koreans to surrender their nukes. As far as Kim is concerned, nuclear deterrence against the United States has now been achieved, and he’d be mad to give it up again.
It’s a pretty flimsy form of deterrence—his rockets aren’t very accurate and his nuclear weapons don’t always explode in a fully satisfactory way—but even a 10 percent chance that North Korea could kill half a million Americans in a ‘revenge from the grave’ attack should be enough to deter the US from using nukes on North Korea.
A nuclear war between the US and North Korea would probably kill ten times as many North Koreans including practically every member of the regime—Pyongyang would be a glowing, radioactive pit—so Kim’s regime would never initiate such a conflict. But he needs the assurance that the United States will never resort to nuclear weapons either, and only North Korean nuclear weapons can provide the necessary deterrence.
You may deplore this kind of thinking, but it is entirely rational and it is at the heart of North Korea’s strategy. Kim’s willingness to talk about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” is therefore just that: a willingness to talk, but not to act. And there’s plenty to talk about.
Does ‘denuclearisation’ mean no American nuclear weapons can be located in South Korea? Given the range of those weapons, how would that make North Korea any safer? Does it mean dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Certainly not. It’s just what Kim had to say to get the talks started.
His ultimate goal is to ‘normalise’ North Korean nukes, as Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons were eventually accepted as normal. This can only happen if the United States acknowledges a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the two countries, which Trump is not yet ready to do. But even by talking to Kim about it, he begins to give the concept substance.
Kim can promise Trump a “moratorium on nuclear and missile tests” because he doesn’t really need more tests. His nuclear weapons and rockets are far fewer and much less sophisticated than their American counterparts, but mutual deterrence can work effectively even when one side has a hundred or a thousand times more nuclear weapons than the other.
So Trump gets an early ‘win’, and Kim gets to nudge the United States a little closer to an understanding that its future relationship with North Korea will be one of mutual deterrence. Or maybe locking two narcissists in a room is bound to end in tears, but it’s well worth a try.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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