North Korean leader Kim Jong Un finally wants to talk about his nuclear and ballistic missile programs – or so he claims. This news is welcome, but it should also be greeted with skepticism. That’s why President Trump should accept the invitation tendered by our South Korean allies, but always keeping in mind the low likelihood that such talks will deliver tangible results.
North Korea has a long tradition of signing agreements and then breaking them. Kim Jong Un is also no respecter of decency or peace, as his repeated missile tests, threats against U.S. civilians, and unrestricted brutality with his own subjects all demonstrate amply.
Kim is not a leader predisposed to breaking bread. But peace efforts are worth trying, especially considering that the alternative might require a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula.
And so, President Trump must somehow pursue talks, but without jeopardizing U.S. security interests. And his biggest challenge in holding talks will be to make sure that Kim isn’t just buying time for his nuclear program to finish its last stages of development.
In order to accomplish this, Trump should begin talks as soon as humanly possible. He should order senior U.S. officials to meet with their North Korean counterparts within one week, and accept no excuses for delay. And if North Korea agrees to that timetable, then Trump should immediately offer a trade of olive branches. The U.S. would suspend military exercises with South Korea, and in return, North Korea would suspend its missile and miniaturized warhead development activities, allowing an International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and verify the suspension.
The inspectors would focus on ensuring North Korean has indeed suspended its development activities, primarily focusing on warhead re-entry vehicles, terminal stage telemetry and targeting, and warhead miniaturization. Those particular elements are likely the last remaining obstacles to a credible North Korean nuclear ballistic missile capability.
If Trump can put a freeze on these elements of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it will be enough to guarantee that the clock has really stopped for talks and that Kim is not merely buying time. A critical point here will be the IAEA’s ability to conduct snap inspections at sites of concern. If Kim Jong Un agrees to snap inspections, it will show that he is serious about pursuing a lasting agreement.
By the same token, if North Korea can feasibly hide its research efforts, it will do so. Trump must not repeat the failure of former President Barack Obama in his nuclear deal in Iran, in which the Iranians managed to delay inspector access to certain sites for more than three weeks.
If Trump follows this course, he will be demonstrating his own sincerity in desiring peace. Still, he would be unwise to presume that this desire will be reciprocated. He must prepare for conflict. He must also warn China and Russia that if talks fail, North Korea will not suffer alone. Chinese and Russian financial entities doing illicit business with North Korea will face immediate and aggressive sanctions. Trump should emphasize that he will make no distinction as to the nationality of companies involved, nor to the size of their capital holdings. This will encourage Beijing and Moscow to impress upon Kim, to the extent that they can, the need to act constructively.
In tandem with sanctions in the event of a diplomatic failure, Trump should immediately order a visible military buildup to include 3 carrier strike groups. The president should also order the evacuation of noncombatant U.S. civilians in South Korea.
Ultimately, as we say, we are not optimistic that talks will bring about any durable success, nor even that Kim Jong Un would join them constructively. But we also believe that peace demands every practical effort. Time is not on America’s side, but the balance of power is. Trump should talk to Kim and judge the North Korean leader by how he responds.