Kim puts denuclearization on the table
President Trump this week expressed cautious confidence that a planned head-to-head summit with Kim Jong Un will lead to a deal in which North Korea completely surrenders its nuclear weapons. The North Korean dictator announced last week he was shutting down a nuclear-testing facility and suspending nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests; he’s also signaled that he is open to denuclearization if he receives guarantees his regime will not be attacked or toppled. Trump said the two countries were having “good discussions,” and praised Kim for being “very honorable.” But he warned he would walk away from the summit—loosely scheduled for late May or early June—if he felt Kim wasn’t serious about giving up his nuclear bombs and ICBMs. U.S. officials said the administration favored a “big bang” deal, under which both sides would make major concessions early on—such as a trade of sanctions relief for Pyongyang in exchange for concrete steps toward the dismantling of the regime’s nuclear program. “We’ll see,” said Trump. “Maybe it will be wonderful or maybe it won’t.”
Kim was expected to meet this week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to negotiate a possible peace deal to formally end the Korean War, which was brought to a halt by an armistice in 1953. To show the thaw was real, the two countries set up a telephone hotline between their leaders for the first time, and Seoul turned off the loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda along the border.
What the editorials said
“Little Rocket Man” may have blinked, said the New York Post. Granted, the portly dictator’s good-faith gesture to halt nuclear tests and ICBM launches is “easily reversible.” But the fact that he is also putting out “feelers” about peace, and recently told South Korea he wouldn’t insist on a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, is cause for encouragement. The U.S. and U.N. sanctions have hit the regime hard, with “factories closed” and “military units stranded without fuel.” While we should be wary of trusting this sinister regime, Pyongyang may be “getting ready to fold.”
Don’t be fooled, said The Weekly Standard. Kim must be over the moon that the U.S. president accepted his offer of head-to-head talks, as it gives him the “legitimacy and prestige” he and his regime have always craved. Ultimately, there’s no way Kim will “willingly divest himself of nuclear weapons,” which he sees as integral to his personal survival, his foreign policy, and his country’s “whole self-identity.” Secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton probably understand that. Does Trump?
What the columnists said
Kim is playing Trump “like a Stradivarius,” said Max Boot in The Washington Post. The North Korean dictator knows our president thinks “he alone can bring peace to the Korean Peninsula,” and that he’ll seize on any apparent concession by Pyongyang as proof of his dealmaking genius and superiority to previous presidents. So Kim is simply “stringing Trump along” with “vague promises he has no intention of keeping”—probably to buy more time to perfect his ICBMs’ ability to deliver nuclear payloads to U.S. cities.
The Kim-Trump negotiations are bound to end in “disaster,” said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. Trump thinks international politics is like real estate, and is based “on personal relations” between the principals, when it’s actually based on “interests.” It’s not in Kim’s interest to surrender the nukes he and his father have spent decades and billions developing. Yet Trump thinks if he can get in a room with Kim, he’ll talk him into major concessions. When that fails, the embarrassed Trump will resume his “fire and fury” threats.
The Kim-Trump summit is “more likely to reframe” the 70-year Korean standoff “than to end it,” said Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal. Pyongyang will likely accept denuclearization “as a goal,” in exchange for the U.S. lifting some sanctions right away and starting negotiations for a peace treaty. The key is the ICBM program. If Kim agrees to maintain his freeze on missile tests, Trump can “claim a win,” as he will have prevented North Korea from developing nukes that can hit U.S. cities. Critics will no doubt complain that this is more “can-kicking than peacemaking.” But in diplomacy, “sometimes kicking is all you can do.”