Kim Jong-un has no incentive to denuclearise. The sooner Trump realises that, the better
Talks between the US and North Korea are, if you believe the pessimists, doomed before they even start. Friday's meeting between the north's Kim Jong-un and the south's Moon Jae-in are just part of an elaborate ploy by "Rocket Man", as US President Donald Trump once called him, to lure his gullible interlocutors into thinking he is serious about negotiating away his nuclear arsenal.
In fact, they say, he is just playing for time. The Kim dynasty is not to be trusted. They've reneged on their promises in the past. And the US president is showing his naivete in international relations by assuming that his bellicose tweets could win him the deal that eluded his more experienced predecessors.
Perhaps. But to be overly hawkish about this before Mr Trump and Mr Kim have even sat down together would indeed render the talks pointless. Perhaps there is a deal available. It just might not be the one it is generally assumed it has to be.
For what can the world reasonably expect Mr Kim to concede? If he agrees to stop work on his nuclear programme and to desist from testing ballistic missiles, both permanently, that would be a significant advance. If he was willing to sign a peace treaty with the south (the Korean War was ended by an armistice, which is just a cessation in hostilities), that would too. And if he was happy to begin opening up his hermit kingdom so that his countrymen could begin to benefit from the advances of the 20th century – never mind the 21st – that would also be most welcome.
What is unreasonable is to expect Mr Kim to give up the only trump card he possesses – his nuclear capability. The naysayers would then object that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is the whole point of the talks. But is it? Surely peace and the removal of a threat from a rogue regime would be almost as great an outcome?
The spectre of the late colonel Muammar Gaddafi hangs heavy over these talks. In 2003, the Libyan leader agreed to get rid of his stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and end his country’s own nuclear programme. He thought he was then on good terms with the West – and with good reason. The then British prime minister Tony Blair visited him the following year, publicly shook hands with Qaddafi in an encampment outside Tripoli and declared that he had "real hope" for a new relationship Libya. The US sent an assistant secretary of state; American and UN sanctions on the country were lifted.
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As a former state department official involved in the negotiations wrote at the time: “The lesson is incontrovertible: to persuade a rogue regime to give up its weapons of mass destruction, we must not only apply pressure but also make clear the potential benefits of cooperation.”
Only seven years later, however, Gaddafi was dead, having been shot during an uprising against his rule – an uprising whose success was ensured by military support from his former friends, the US, France and Britain.
So Mr Kim has learned another lesson: give up your insurance policy at your peril. Which is why he would be the one showing incomprehensible naivete if he did agree to surrender his nuclear arsenal. What guarantee would he have that his new friends might not turn against him, just as they turned against the self-proclaimed “dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims”?
Who, in any case, would force him to denuclearise? China will only exert so much economic pressure on their wayward client state because they fear the chaos that would follow if the regime collapsed. Moreover in that event, unless Beijing was willing to intervene militarily, the Korean peninsula would then likely be dominated by the South and China would not welcome a US defence partner on its doorstep.
Despite Mr Trump’s past threats, nobody sensible in the US – certainly not Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and probably not even the warlike duo of soon-to-be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – believes you can have either a limited attack on Pyongyang or a knockout blitzkrieg that would not lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands – and possibly millions – in the two Koreas. And that would leave US promises of protection and alliance in tatters.
So let's be pragmatic about what is possible and accept that we're going to have to accept something that we hitherto found unacceptable – a North Korea with successfully developed nuclear technology.
Once that mental hurdle is cleared, so much is possible. Mr Kim might be willing to submit to an advanced inspection and monitoring regime. His commitments not to expand these programmes any further have already been given. A hotline has recently been installed to link the leaders of the two Koreas, both of whom have said they want to row back from the brink of confrontation. If these meetings can lead to the beginning of a meaningful peace process, would that not be worth a great deal?
A pragmatist or a realist would say yes. It's also more or less the conclusion that long-term observers of North Korea like former US president Jimmy Carter and the eminent Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan have come to. Mr Trump is unfettered by the promises and assumptions of his predecessors and he likes to think of himself as the ultimate deal-maker. A historic deal may well be there to be made and Mr Trump could be the one to make it – if only he is pragmatic enough not to insist the impossible of Mr Kim.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia
Updated: April 25, 2018 08:47 PM