Will Donald Trump join the list of American presidents and diplomats who have been played for suckers by North Korea? It looks like he already has.
First, let’s be clear what North Korea’s game is and how the new proposal for a meeting between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un fits into it.
The North Korean playbook looks something like this. Make a lot of threats, snarl like a mad dog in a cage, insult foreign leaders in the colorfully stilted style we’ve come to associate with North Korean propaganda, and generally escalate tensions in a theatrical manner. Then suddenly wow everyone with conciliatory gestures. Having gotten everyone worked up over the previous round of threats, get them worked up about overtures for peace. Appeal to the vanity of the latest round of politicians and diplomats by dangling the prospect of getting that elusive peace deal no one has ever gotten before. Extract what you can from them in terms of money, sanctions relief, and internal and external propaganda. Then let the whole thing slowly fall apart, and start the cycle over again.
How many of these cycles have we been through by now? We did all of this most famously under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and either we or our allies have been through it several times since then. Internal agonizing about the latest round of this cycle is a perennial feature of South Korean politics. So what reason do we have to think it will go differently this time?
This, by the way, is why I was not panicked six months ago by the prospect that Donald Trump was going to blunder us into a nuclear war. There was nothing new about the North Korean belligerence that people imagined was being provoked by Trump’s erratic tweets. But this is also why I don’t think Trump is going to blunder us out of a nuclear North Korea.
This history is why it has generally been regarded as a bad idea to give the North Koreans any kind of high-profile meeting without preconditions. In the past, we’ve let ourselves get suckered into granting concessions just as in incentive to begin talks, only to get nothing in return. A tough and realistic administration would want North Korea to take substantial steps toward de-nuclearization—or at the very least return the US citizens it still holds in its gulags—before agreeing to a new round of talks. This is why so many on the right opposed meeting Kim’s father without preconditions back when Barack Obama proposed it. Moreover, we have also generally opposed direct talks between the US and North Korea in favor of talks that include local allies like South Korea and Japan, so the North Koreans can’t try to exploit divisions between us. This is exactly what they just did, pitting a South Korean president who is desperately eager for rapprochement with the North against a Japanese president who has been taking a hard line.
It’s not just that Trump has changed US policy toward North Korea, it’s that he did it impulsively, without planning or deliberation. But surely Trump is different! Surely his great skills as a negotiator and dealmaker will allow him to make a breakthrough where nobody else could. That’s certainly what he thinks, and if you believe that, you probably believe he should already be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Heck, Obama got one for less.
But here’s the thing. This is what everybody else believed in the previous rounds of this North Korea cycle. That’s what caused the Clinton administration to think that they would be the ones to make the breakthrough, and it’s exactly the kind of thinking that led President Obama into the one-sided deal with Iran that President Trump has spent so much time complaining about. In Obama’s case, he thought he could make deals because he was less belligerent and more conciliatory. Trump thinks he can makes them because he talks tough, especially on Twitter. In each case, the dictatorship appeals to the politician’s need for flattery and his sense of self-aggrandizement, his belief that has some special quality that will allow him to succeed at a policy that has always failed before.
In aiming this at Trump, they showed that they know their man well. And in boasting that he believes North Korea will honor their commitments, Trump is indicating that he is already taken in.
This time around, I don’t think they were actually aiming at Trump. A timeline of the background for the offer suggests that this is part of a big North Korean effort to reel in South Korean President Moon Jae-in. If you watched the opening ceremonies of the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea, particularly the four South Korean pop stars singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” an anthem of faith in an impossible hippie utopia, you’ll sense the powerful pull of wishful thinking in the South about a happy reunion with the North. Yet in aiming at the over-eager President Moon, the North Koreans may have reeled in a bigger fish.
Maybe things really will be different this time. Maybe Kim Jong-un is North Korea’s Mikhail Gorbachev. But given the total lack of evidence for such a radically new direction, this is vanishingly unlikely. Realistically, we know that dictatorships tend to make decisions based on calculations about what they need for the continued survival of the regime. Those calculations don’t change just because our president fancies himself a good negotiator.
In this case, the dictatorship that matters is not North Korea so much as it is China. North Korea is totally dependent on China—for energy, for aid, for trade, for banking, and most of all for helping to enforce North Korea’s border, without which the country would suffer the same kind of internal collapse East Germany did in 1989 when its citizens found they were allowed to escape by way of Czechoslovakia. It’s clear that the North Korean regime exists and causes trouble because the Chinese leadership wants it to exist and cause trouble. China’s Communist leaders think this serves their interests, particularly because they are paranoid about the prospect of sharing a substantial border with a free nation allied with America.
With China’s Xi Jinping imposing one-man rule and making himself president for life—a relapse to Maoism after decades of halting reform—do you think he is going to decide these interests have changed?
The lessons of our history with North Korea are clear. Demand real and permanent steps to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and release the regime’s hostages, and demand that first. Don’t “trust but verify,” just verify. And don’t give the North Koreans anything, not even a photo op, until you’re sure they’ve delivered on their end of the bargain. And don’t imagine that you can deal with them any other way.