When President Trump tipped reporters to expect a big announcement Thursday evening on North Korea, I joked to a friend that this could only amount to good news in the unlikely event that North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un had just sent Trump a note saying "Help! I want to defect!"
No such luck. Instead, Kim has asked President Trump for a meeting as soon as possible, and Trump has agreed to meet with Kim by May.
This plan is now being widely hailed as a historic step forward; a triumph for Trump's campaign of coralling Pyongyang with "maximum pressure." It's historic all right, but there's an enormous hazard that it's a step right into the same old North Korean trap.
North Korea has a record of deceit that includes not only the series of broken nuclear deals over the past 24 years, but the surprise invasion of South Korea way back in 1950, with which Kim Jong's grandfather, founding tyrant Kim Il Sung, triggered the 1950-53 Korean War. The totalitarian character of the regime itself — a system built on brute force, threats and lies — ought to warn us that Kim's goal in proposing a summit is not to surrender to maximum pressure, but to deflate it, via assorted diplomatic stunts. All the better for Kim to regroup and carry on with North Korea's predatory projects, global rackets and nuclear missile program. (Forget the idea that Kim might be suddenly looking to repent his murderous ways and scrap his totalitarian system; odds are, his own gotesquely abused citizenry would seize the chance to kill him.)
Already, with this plan for a summit, Kim is gaming the mighty United States. For an American president to agree to a sitdown with North Korea's tyrant is not a coup for the U.S., it's a concession. When the elected leader of the Free World sits down with a totalitarian dictator to bargain as equals, it dignifies the dictator, not the democrat.
What's North Korea offering in exchange? Reportedly, Kim has agreed to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests while this summit diplomacy goes forward. That sounds nifty, but unless North Korea actually dismantles its entire nuclear program and ships it a la Qaddafi to Tennessee, it means nothing. North Korea has engaged of its own accord in multiple pauses in testing over the years, including a pause of some four years between its 2009 and 2013 nuclear tests, followed by another pause of almost three years before the first of the two nuclear tests it conducted in 2016. Likewise, North Korea for its own internal and logistical reasons takes breaks between its tests of long-range rockets.
One might reasonably assume that during the breaks between all those tests, North Korea's large array of nuclear and missile scientists and technicians, working under the jackboot of Kim's regime, take time to pore over the test results and enhance their warheads and missiles for the next test. Kim Jong Un recently exhorted his nuclear experts to charge full speed ahead with mass production of nuclear warheads (he did that in the same New Year's speech in which he announced he would send a delegation to the Olympics). But even the most dedicated rogue nuclear missile program needs time for its scientists, engineers and political commissars to analyze, refresh and reload.
Which explains why, despite sundry pauses over the past dozen years, North Korea has by now conducted six nuclear tests, from 2006-2017, and is today on the verge of acquiring the ability to reach the U.S. with nuclear missiles — if, indeed, it has not achieved this ability already.
Kim's other reported "concession" is that North Korea will not object to the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to take place next month. While it's pleasant that we might be spared some of the usual Pyongyang invective, this, too, is not exactly a game changer. For one thing, these joint exercises usually proceed despite North Korea's protests and threats. For another, at the behest of South Korea these joint exercises had already been postponed in order to deflect the chance that North Korea might respond by threatening the Olympics. Effectively, the postponement was a payoff during the Olympics, by the U.S. and South Korea, to North Korea's protection racket. So Kim's already ahead of the game.
And Kim's regime has just had an especially lively two years on the WMD front, in 2016 and 2017: three nuclear tests (two in 2016, and one in 2017, which Pyongyang plausibly claimed was a hydrogen bomb); plus three successful ICBM tests (two last July; and one last September, launched over Japan); plus an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles tests generally; with some publicity thrown in for North Korea's submarine-launched ballistic missile program. Kim showcased all this with threats of nuclear strikes on the U.S. and its allies. It's also been a busy time for North Korea's chemical weapons program, including the use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim's half-brother last year in a Malaysian airport, plus the bulk assistance to Syria's Assad regime.
Trump deserves great credit for the campaign of pressure, with which he has responded to North Korea's festival of rogue activities. He inherited the fast-growing North Korean threat after President Obama spent eight years kicking that fabled can down the road with his feckless policy of "strategic patience." Trump has tried to tamp down North Korea with just about every measure short of war, trying to enhance any U.S. leverage and claw back the U.S. credibility squandered under Obama. Trump has piled on sanctions, trying to choke North Korea's illicit traffic and WMD programs. He has tried cutting Kim down to size, ridiculing him as "Little Rocket Man." Trump has issued his own threats, backed by massive shows of military force, and he has given speeches in Seoul, at the United Nations and to Congress highlighting and detailing the depravities of the North Korean regime.
All of which might well have inspired Kim Jong Un to decide that it's now time to take a break, and head for a pitstop the bargaining table. The problem for the U.S. is that there is no diplomatic deal that would deliver any serious chance of ending North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea's totalitarian system, with its pervasive control and closed society, means there is no way that any deal can be genuinely monitored and enforced from outside. North Korea can let inspectors in, but it can just as readily kick them out. North Korea can promise to shutter its weapons-producing facilities, but it can then unshutter them, or secretly build new ones, and then dare the U.S. to do anything about it. That's how one nuclear deal after another has failed. Repeatedly North Korea has cheated and walked away refreshed and refortified, its pockets stuffed with whatever plunder it can carry from the bargaining table.
Nor is it reassuring that this summit offer comes via the go-between of left-wing South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who seems to be operating on the assumption that eager deference to North Korea will thwart Kim's predatory designs on the South. Last month, Moon ushered Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, into his VIP box near Vice-President Mike Pence for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and then hosted her for lunch at South Korea's presidential Blue House. She delivered an invitation from Kim to Moon for a meeting, and Moon is now planning his own summit with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone, in late April. Early this week, Moon dispatched a high-level South Korean delegation to Pyongyang, where Kim Jong Un hosted them for a four-hour dinner that North Korea's state-run propaganda mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, described as suffused with "a warm atmosphere overflowing with compatriotic feelings." (Should that make anyone feel safer?)
The leader of this South Korean delegation, National Security Adviser Chung Eui-Yong, then rushed to Washington to brief Trump on all those overflowing feelings at Kim Jong Un's dinner table, and then briefed the White House press corps on the impending Kim-Trump summit. The Trump administration is promising that this diplomacy will not not blunt its pressure on North Korea. But sanctions tend to erode in any case, and it will likely become a lot harder to persuade other countries to treat North Korea as a pariah if the American president is personally rubbing elbows with Kim Jong Un.
As I wrote on the blog of the Independent Women's Forum:
It's tempting to interpret all this as evidence that President Trump's campaign of 'maximum pressure,' including tougher sanctions, is finally persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. But the far likelier scenario is that North Korea would use any talks not as a road to peace, but as yet another route to an industrial-scale nuclear arsenal with which it could blackmail the U.S. and proceed with its 'compatriotic' ambitions not to sup with South Korea, but to subjugate it.
This is a contest in which the only real triumph for the U.S. and our allies — and for the basic cause of freedom and decency — will come with the end of North Korea's totalitarian regime. The mission needs to be taking Kim down, not chatting him up.