Yesterday, President Trump became the first US president to cross into North Korea when he met briefly with Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom. Whether you think this was real or a photo opportunity, a couple of things were indisputable. The meeting occurred based on personal diplomacy on the part of Trump. The meeting was a first of its kind. North Korea has not tested a ballistic missile or nuke in nearly two years. Sanctions against North Korea are now more robust in scope and in enforcement than at anytime the past several decades.
One would think that anyone who doesn’t want war on the Korean Peninsula would be in favor of Winston Churchill’s maxim of “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case. There seems to be a substantial stream of thought within diplomatic circles that war with North Korea is, indeed, preferable to no war occurring and Donald Trump getting some credit for either the reduction in hostilities or, heaven forfend, an actual diplomatic breakthrough. Here is an example of a person or persons within the State Department attempting to torpedo Trump’s diplomatic efforts by painting them as caving to Kim.
But for weeks before the meeting, which started as a Twitter offer by the president for Mr. Kim to drop by at the Demilitarized Zone and “say hello,” a real idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that officials hope might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations.
The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.
It falls far short of Mr. Trump’s initial vow 30 months ago to solve the North Korea nuclear problem, but it might provide him with a retort to campaign-season critics who say the North Korean dictator has been playing the American president brilliantly by giving him the visuals he craves while holding back on real concessions.
While the approach could stop that arsenal from growing, it would not, at least in the near future, dismantle any existing weapons, variously estimated at 20 to 60. Nor would it limit the North’s missile capability.
The administration still insists in public and in private that its goals remain full denuclearization. But recognizing that its maximalist demand for the near-term surrender of Mr. Kim’s cherished nuclear program is going nowhere, it is weighing a new approach that would begin with a significant — but limited — first step.
From the good ol’ NeverTrump right:
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And from the Obama alumni:
The same Trump that trashed Obama’s Iran Deal as “horrible,” even though it kept Tehran far away from having a single nuclear bomb, is now contemplating a freeze deal with North Korea that would leave them with 20-60 nuclear weapons. https://t.co/LjDBxblmZL
— Colin Kahl (@ColinKahl) July 1, 2019
Notice anything similar?
Here are two themes that permeate all reporting on the subject.
1. Kim will not give up his nuclear arsenal. How do we know this? We don’t. We know he won’t/can’t give it up under current circumstances–both internally and externally–but we don’t know what circumstances would convince him to do so. The same geniuses that convinced themselves that their god-king could woo the Iranian mullahs into agreeing to put aside their nuclear and territorial ambitions and become a good-faith partner in the Middle East are now trying to convince us that yes, they can actually distinguish their ass from a hot rock.
2. Trump is a naif in search of adulation who is being played by wily Kim. Nothing. I say again, nothing in Kim’s foreign policy indicates that either he or his advisers have any sophistication or even a sense of how little anyone in the West not called South Korea thinks about them. There is no doubt that Kim does have a game here. Ideally, he’d like to trade meetings for relaxed sanctions. Unfortunately for him, the rejection of Trump, from his friends and enemies, would be nearly universal and immediate if he did so. Kim actually has a greater need of the meetings with Trump for his own domestic consumption. Trump undoubtedly likes the notoriety of meeting with Kim because, I suspect, of the people who befoul themselves but there’s no evidence that he’s willing to go back on a position he’s unambiguously staked out.
While we have no idea of the source(s) for the NYT piece, we do have two on-the-record comments.
On Sunday evening, the State Department’s envoy to North Korea, Stephen E. Biegun, said that this account of the ideas being generated in the administration was “pure speculation” and that his team was “not preparing any new proposal currently.”
“What is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate,” he said.
John Bolton has weighed in:
I read this NYT story with curiosity. Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to “settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.” This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences. https://t.co/TTRPQkksza
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) July 1, 2019
Glad to see National Security Advisor Bolton push back hard against the NY Times narrative stating the Administration would accept a nuclear freeze as an acceptable outcome by North Korea. https://t.co/4fO9VAnQUQ
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 1, 2019
Taken in its most favorable light, the source for this is a loser who is very happy to lose. It is someone who really believes that Kim has outmaneuvered this president, just like all presidents before him, and that our best bet is to try to save some face by agreeing to give the North Koreans what they want under the fig leaf of a “freeze” that can no more be verified than can anything else in North Korea today.
If you take it at its most cynical, it is simply an attempt to undercut the Administration by giving their enemies at home and abroad aid and comfort. It is trying to damage Trump domestically by insisting, in absence of all evidence, that the administration is not serious about ridding North Korea of nukes and it is trying to give Kim hope that by holding out he’ll get rid of sanctions and keep his nukes.
Regarding the idea of a 'nuclear freeze' with North Korea – it simply won't work. Pyongyang won't accept intrusive and invasive inspections of its nuclear facilities. The US would make substantial concessions and North Korea would violate any freeze. https://t.co/XhaQf1Oeoa
— Dr. Malcolm Davis (@Dr_M_Davis) July 2, 2019
The underlying assumptions in this article are simply at odds with the facts. If meeting with Kim makes him more secure at home, he has a greater ability to cut a deal that will be opposed by a large swath of the North Korean ruling elite and that is good. Every day that passes under sanctions, the North Korean government grows weaker and is less able to pursue whatever douchebaggery it would otherwise be up to, that is also good. If we are talking we aren’t shooting, also a big plus. Needless to say, this in not a timed event. Either a deal will materialize or it will not. The worst possible course for the Trump administration would to be cutting a deal with the DPRK locking in their ability to deliver nuclear weapons to the United States after abrogating an deal that ostensibly kept Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Trump knows this. His advisers know this. His enemies here and abroad know this.