Whatever comes next with North Korea, President Donald Trump can hardly be accused of having neglected diplomacy. At the Singapore Summit with Kim Jong Un this past June, Trump became the first sitting American president to meet with a North Korean tyrant. He has received an envoy from Kim in the Oval Office, dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on multiple trips to Pyongyang and is talking about holding a second summit with Kim.
And, with a trademark rhetorical flourish that no one should take literally, Tump recently described how Kim wrote him "beautiful letters," with the result that "we fell in love, OK?"
There's been plenty of criticism of Trump's diplomacy. For an American president to glad-hand Kim dignifies a dictator whose baggage includes the worst systematic human-rights abuses on the planet. The brief joint statement signed by Trump and Kim on June 12 in Singapore, in which Kim's core commitment was "to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," has yet to produce any neat public timetables or detailed text for a plan of action. Most of all, more than four months after the summit, there is no sure sign that Kim is about to surrender a single nuclear bomb, or even stop producing bomb fuel.
All these complaints are valid. But the devil here does not actually reside in the details. The real snare is the hope that Kim, while still ruling over North Korea, can ever be peacefully bargained out of his nuclear arsenal. Kim presides over a totalitarian system structured so pervasively around lies, brutality, terror, out-sized arsenals and international extortion, that there is simply no diplomatic denuclearization deal that he's likely to honor.
Trump himself described the problem quite well in a speech last November to the South Korean parliament: "North Korea is a country ruled as a cult. At the center of this military cult is a deranged belief in the leader's destiny to rule as a parent protector over a conquered Korean peninsula and an enslaved Korean people."
This is not a case that lends itself to Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify." Unless North Korea's secretive totalitarian regime falls — or reforms its ways so thoroughly as to effectively depose itself — Kim's promises are not only perilous to trust, but virtually impossible to verify. That is how North Korea has cheated or reneged its way out of every nuclear and missile deal to date, including a joint denuclearization agreement with South Korea in 1992, the 1994 Agreed Framework under President Bill Clinton, the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement and 2007 deal reached under President George W. Bush and the fleeting 2012 "Leap Day" missile freeze attempted under President Barack Obama.
Whatever promises Kim might make, it's a good bet that what he's really trying to do is buy time for his nuclear program — while sanctions erode, and the clock runs out on yet another American presidency. That is the old and perniciously successful North Korean playbook.
So, is Trump wrong, or crazy or utterly misguided to be attempting a diplomatic deal with Kim?
Not necessarily — if we take into account the mix of crisis and contortionist constraints that Trump inherited when he took office in January 2017. The big question, as yet unanswered, is what is the Trump administration's real endgame? (If it has one.)
When Trump took office in January 2017, he inherited on the North Korean front a long-running intractable threat, which during President Obama's eight years in the White House had become an accelerating and largely unaddressed crisis. Obama pursued a passive policy of "strategic patience," substantially sidelining North Korea — apart from a last minute warning in late 2016 to then President-Elect Trump that North Korea was the top international security concern his administration would face. North Korea had availed itself of Obama's passivity to carry out four nuclear tests on his watch (in 2009, 2013 and two in 2016), a blitz of missile tests, and was cultivating a burgeoning capability for cyber warfare, while Kim Jong Un, via murderous purges, consolidated power inherited upon the death of his father in late 2011.
During Trump's first eight months in office, North Korea continued its rogue rampage. North Korea used VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim's half-brother in a Malaysian airport, successfully tested a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles, threatened the U.S. and its allies with nuclear strikes, and test-detonated what was likely a hydrogen bomb.
In mid-2017, further complicating this scene, South Korea — having just impeached a president who had taken a tough line on North Korea — elected President Moon Jae-in. Moon is a left-wing politician whose visions of "peace" for the Korean peninsula entail a degree of appeasement more likely to embolden Kim than reform or constrain him.
For Trump, the immediate chore was triage. Like every American president since Harry Truman, he evidently ruled out an attack that might escalate into a replay of the carnage of the 1950-53 Korean War. Instead, Trump began jockeying to change the dynamic of the escalating threats from North Korea, by cutting Kim down to size and choking his cash flows. Trump ridiculed Kim as "Rocket Man," threatened him with "fire and fury," and in a campaign of "maximum pressure" pushed through tougher sanctions at the United Nations, backed by stronger U.S. efforts at enforcement.
Last November, Trump visited Seoul, and delivered a speech to South Korea's National Assembly, detailing the "hell" of North Korea. Trump threatened Kim with "grave danger" but also offered Kim "a path to a much better future" if he chose to end his regime's aggression and engage in "complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization." Trump underscored his threat to Kim with a massive display of U.S. firepower, dispatching a strike group of three U.S. aircraft carriers to conduct exercises near North Korea.
So, in 2018, came the current spell of apparent conciliation. Trump has stopped deriding Kim as "Rocket Man." Kim has refrained, to date, from further missile and nuclear tests. South Korea's President Moon is questing after a declaration of "peace," regardless of the reality that North Korea has not so far been defanged, nor is there any sure sign that Kim has abandoned his dynastic dreams of ruling over an enslaved South Korea.
This is not peace. It is a pause, in a volatile and dangerous showdown. The fundamental question is whether there is anything, in all this maneuvering, that without resort to war might serve to finally bring to an end the totalitarian Kim regime.
On that score, amid a welter of mixed signals, there are a few glimmers worth watching. Notably, Trump during this bout of diplomacy has been flanked by two cabinet members who are under no illusions about the menace of Kim's regime: Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Both are on record, before entering their current positions, as arguing that the most dangerous aspect of North Korea is its regime. Bolton in 2008 co-authored an article for The Wall Street Journal headlined "The World Shouldn't Fear the Collapse of North Korea."
Trump and Pompeo have held out to Kim a vision of a bright future for a denuclearized North Korea, with an influx of American investment and know-how. Less remarked upon is the likely catch in this vision for Kim himself, who faces the tyrant's dilemma: If he starts to disarm and open his country to avail himself of this offer, there's a good chance his own brutalized people might seize the opportunity to overthrow him. Surely Kim has some inkling of this: North Korea's state-run media are prone to noting that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear kit, and was later killed in a ditch.
Not that Trump is offering Kim a choice entirely free of pressure. Trump has stressed that no sanctions on North Korea will be lifted until Kim has completely denuclearized, a point repeated by Pompeo when he chaired a meeting last month of the United Nations Security Council. Trump has also begun rebuilding the U.S. military, and is maneuvering globally in ways that could affect Kim's patrons, business partners and calculus. Earlier this year, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions on Iran that that cut into the ready cash Tehran might want to spend on North Korean military wares. Trump has put growing pressure on China, not only over trade with the U.S. and turf grabs in the region, but also over its sanctions-violating commerce with North Korea.
And for all Trump's disconcerting recent praise of Kim, there's been a Godfather quality to his diplomacy that suggests a distinct U.S. growl beneath the blandishments. For a prime example, take the brief video produced by the White House, which Trump gave to Kim, loaded onto an ipad, at the Singapore Summit. Under the logo "Destiny Pictures," this video was mostly about the bright future awaiting a denuclearized North Korea, featuring sunrises, cars, speedboats, groceries and horses galloping through the surf.
In the U.S. media, this video was widely derided as a ridiculous piece of kitsch. But as a gift to Kim, world leader of kitsch, it was an inspired message, couched in the language of his regime. And about halfway through, in an illustration of what could go wrong if Kim spurns Trump's deal, the video featured a brief scene of a U.S. Navy strike group. It was not just any old strike group; it was quite specifically a scene of the three aircraft carriers that had exercised together near North Korea last November.
That was a direct message to Kim. It should at least raise some hope that in closed-door conversations, Trump and Pompeo have been alerting Kim to the true dangers of threatening the U.S. — just in case Kim's courtiers have been less than eager to provide their supreme leader with such information.
Whether any of this nudges North Korea's regime toward its long-overdue demise, or is even meant to, is still a long shot, and a wide open question. But for the U.S., that needs to be the real mission. If, indeed, it isn't already.