Donald Trump’s quick commitment to meeting North Korea’s Kim Jong-un reportedly caught even his cabinet by surprise. Foreign policy observers certainly did not see it coming. But what will meeting Kim achieve?
At the very least, it changes the tone of the conversation after a year of mutual nuclear taunting. Whatever else we might think about the situation, that is to be welcome. But tone is not the same thing as policy, and, as things stand, nothing about the military policy of either country has changed.
The American goal in these negotiations is to stop the further development of the North Korean nuclear program and to defuse Kim’s nuclear capability. We know the North Koreans have the capacity to build and successfully detonate nuclear bomb.
And we know they are making progress toward missile delivery systems, which, if they do not threaten any US territories, they certainly threaten US allies such as South Korea and Japan. North Korea does pose a real nuclear threat to US interests and allies.
The short of it, however, is that the United States will not achieve this goal. Kim Jong-un may be an unpleasant character, but he is by no account crazy. And, it seems, he has learnt from history.
Every regime which has given up their nuclear program under pressure from the West has suffered the consequencesAzeem Ibrahim
Saddam gave up his nuclear and other WMD programs in the Oil for Food programme, and less than 10 years later he was hanged by a US-installed Iraqi government. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program in order to trade oil with the West, and again, less than 10 years later he was killed in a Western-supported uprising.
Ukraine voluntarily gave up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union by 1996, and not two decades later, Russia, the recipient of those missiles, invaded and annexed Crimea.
There is nothing to suggest that Kim intends to repeat this history. In fact, the reason he has pushed on with the nuclear program in recent years despite unprecedented pressure from the West and his neighbours, including the North’s longstanding ally, China, is because Kim and his regime are convinced that nukes are the only thing that can sustain their regime.
And it is difficult to argue against their case: every regime which has given up their nuclear program under pressure from the West has suffered the consequences; while now that Kim’s nuclear programme is on its feet and largely successful, “the most isolated regime in the world” gets to meet face-to-face with the leader of the free world.
But the optics for Trump are much worse that that. It’s not just that Trump’s administration is rewarding Kim with a visit for decades of defiance and for breaking international rules on nuclear proliferation. The details of the meeting will also be hugely relevant.
Kim has not left his country since he has acceded to power. And he will not do so now. The meeting will most likely take place on the militarized border between North and South Korea, if not within North Korea itself.
This will be an unbelievable propaganda coup for the regime: after decades of delirious and fantasist news coverage in the North about how powerful the regime is to stand along against all the world’s great powers, now the American president comes to North Korean to “seek terms” with Supreme Leader Kim.
Never in their life would the officials at the propaganda ministry would have expected such a prize to land in their lap.
So best case scenario, the meeting between Trump and Kim will result in the North no longer lobbing missiles toward Japan, and perhaps fewer earthquakes in the Korean peninsula, in exchange for stopping the US - South Korea war exercises on the militarized border.
Worst case scenario… well, Kim and Trump will be alone in a room together. Let’s not speculate about what might be the worst thing that could happen.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.