We are about to witness a no-holds-barred match between two of the greatest bait-and-switch artists in history.
Two men will enter the ring. In this corner, Donald J. Trump, who describes himself as the best dealmaker on the planet. In the other corner, North Korea dictator, Kim Jong-un, a man who runs his hermit kingdom with an iron fist and never takes “no” for an answer.
One man will leave the ring victorious. The other will claim the match was “fixed.”
The stakes could not be higher: Whether a brutal Stalinist dictator is accepted as a member of the small club of nuclear-armed nations, along with his long-range ballistic missiles. Whether North Korea will have a nuclear vote in Asian power politics. Whether the US mainland will chill in the shade of a North Korean nuclear umbrella.
For now, many just seem happy the world has been pulled back from the brink of nuclear war. But really nothing has changed. A year or two from now this relief will be viewed as the height of wishful wishing.
Let me explain.
People in the West have been fed a nonstop diet of news and official statements framing Kim as an unruly spoiled kid, who was handed unrestrained power decades before he reached political (or emotional) maturity. He’s been painted as a petulant little brat who, when confronted by any real or potential challenger(s), has such persons packed off to concentration camps or viciously murdered. He was ignorant, we were told, of the wider world. He was dangerously unpredictable.
But look where he is today. Kim has shepherded his dirt-poor kingdom through countless economic assaults by nearly every country on the planet. Yet he has attained each of his stated goals, one after another, nearly without pause. He has stood fast in the face of military threats from the strongest country on the planet. He hasn’t blinked.
Kim now has at least 20 fully functional nuclear warheads. By 2020, he could possibly have up to 60. He has proven wrong a legion of nuclear experts who claimed that he was years away from being able to miniaturize these warheads. And, in a rapid-fire manner he has succeeded in building intercontinental missiles capable of striking anywhere on the US mainland, even Washington.
In short, he won all those rounds, and did so under the kind of pressure that caused older, stronger, and richer Iran to fold.
Kim is now in the catbird seat, and he knows it.
Which is why what we saw this week was a relaxed, smiling, even jaunty, Kim skipping across the DMZ to high-five the leader of his enemy to the south. Suddenly, Kim is claiming it is he who is the peacemaker.
Meanwhile. His adversary, Donald Trump, is slapping himself on the back, claiming it is he and only he who is responsible for Kim’s change of heart. How wrong he is.
Kim says he’s ready to talk about making the Korean peninsula a “nuclear-free zone.” And if you believe that, you’re, well, naive. Kim is still playing his hand, and it’s a strong one.
First, in coming negotiations, Kim may agree to cut, even eliminate, his current stockpile of nuclear warheads. It would be a cheap card for him to play. Now that he has attained the knowledge and people to build nuclear warheads, he can order new ones built quickly. The long learning curve is now over.
But Kim will never give up his ballistic missiles. Instead he will insist on keeping them by claiming they are now for North Korea’s infant space program. Due to his intense testing program over the last two years, he is confident that — should he ever need it — these same missiles can be quickly retrofitted into nuclear delivery vehicles. He will never give them up. Never. The NRA would give up their guns before Kim would give up his missiles.
Much Ado About Nothing
Much has been made of Kim’s promise to cease all nuclear bomb tests — much of nothing. The north’s nuclear test site is now unusable. The last test of a hydrogen bomb nearly collapsed the entire mountain. The tunnels beneath have collapsed. None of the site can be safely used for further tests. What Kim did with this factual lemon was to make lemonade. Again, well-played, Mr. Kim.
Aside from the military aspects, what does a formal peace treaty with the south mean in real terms? Nothing. Such a treaty would be a mere formality. The DMZ will not be thrown open between the two countries. Kim will surely agree to more economic cooperation with the south, since he needs the money, and his impoverished serfs need paying work.
What he won’t do — because he can’t — is open the north up to the south, much less the rest of the world. No totalitarian regime can long survive once its oppressed and uninformed populace learns how others in the world live. Opening the north to the world would be an act of regime suicide, and Kim doesn’t strike me as suicidal, especially now.
Kim will also refuse to decommission his nuclear power facilities, claiming they are required for electrification projects in the civilian sector. Nor will he agree to give up the right to reprocess spent fuel or allow some other county to do it for him. He will never put his regime’s future in the hands of any other country — not China, not Russia. Remember, he is not just a control freak, but a murderous control freak.
The final round of this drama will play out when Trump and Kim finally meet. Trump will soon learn that denuclearization means one thing to Kim and something very different to Trump. Haunted by his opposition to the “terrible” Iran nuclear deal, Trump will insist that North Korea give up all nuclear weaponry. Kim will tell Trump that he too has redlines and maintaining a nuclear infrastructure is the biggest one.
Talks at this level — a summit — are the endgame in any negotiations. When summits fail, negotiations are over. Which will mean the US is odd man out. The south and north will continue on their own, trying to find ways to live together, however awkwardly.
Meanwhile, the US will not bomb the north, because the south will not stand for it. China won’t stand for it. Russia will not stand for it. Japan won’t stand for it. All of Southeast Asia will not stand for it. The UN will not stand for it.
And if this summit fails, the uber-confident Trump will serve up his usual excuses, concocting nonsense about how he was stabbed in the back by his enemies — Obama, Hillary, Democrats, the UN, blah, blah, blah. But in reality? Neutered by Kim Jong-un. Imagine that.
What we are witnessing now, as the media and politicians trumpet Kim’s latest charm offensive as a remarkable feat of diplomacy, is in reality the most obvious piece of geopolitical sucker bait since Hitler convinced Nevin Chamberlin that all he really wanted was peace in Europe and security for Germany.