Those who have read my analyses of North Korea have long known I have long argued that one of the goals of North Korea’s nuclear programme, seemingly paradoxically, is the improvement of relations with the United States. I am even cited in a book as so arguing, so there! The fast pace of diplomatic developments on the Korean peninsula increasingly lend empirical credence to that view.
That is, North Korea’s nuclear programme partly reflects a strategy of “coercive bandwagoning” designed to provide Pyongyang with leverage to compel high level diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, hopefully as a prelude to a stable peace in Northeast Asia providing a place for the North within the regional political, strategic, and economic architecture.
So long as North Korea did not have the capability to strike the mainland United States the leverage provided by its nuclear capabilities was always limited. However, in 2017 North Korea demonstrated a capability to strike the US homeland with a high yield thermonuclear weapon deliverable by an intercontinental range ballistic missile possessing a relatively high throw-weight. That is, North Korea opened a window of vulnerability previously closed to it, namely the ability to strike and destroy some of the most significant population centres of the continental United States.
Views in the US that would have us believe that North Korea has yet to acquire such a capability are false, and they should be seen as the last gasps of a failed policy at best, or as providing succour for those contemplating a “bloody nose” military strike against North Korea at worst.
The North Korean’s doubtless believe that the development of this capability, that is the window of vulnerability noted above, has compelled the United States to agree to something Pyongyang has long sought, that being a bilateral meeting between the President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of North Korea. I would argue that although that may have been a long sought goal of North Korean strategic planners, and that this is their perception of the underlying reason for Trump’s reported acceptance of a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un now, they would be wrong to suppose that this is why Trump has, seemingly, agreed to a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Why has Trump, apparently, agreed to a summit meeting we thereby naturally ask.
I suspect, assuming that Trump’s agreement reflects substantive deliberation on policy, when it comes to the Trump administration we can and should question this, Washington fears that inter-Korean détente would lead to its diplomatic isolation, indeed that inter-Korean détente very much is leading to its diplomatic isolation regarding the future of the Korean peninsula and its place in Northeast Asia.
The threat of diplomatic isolation was one of the key reasons why the United States entered into substantive talks with Iran regarding its nuclear programme during the Obama administration, and as we know those talks ultimately led to the reaching of the JCPOA. The US dropped the precondition that Iran had to halt its uranium enrichment programme before diplomacy could proceed, as it looked increasingly clear that, regarding Iran policy, the US was becoming diplomatically isolated even from its European allies on account of its hardline stance. The same might apply with regard to the Korean peninsula now. The US may well have been taken by surprise by the astonishing, indeed exciting, pace of diplomatic developments in Korea since Kim Jong Un offered South Korea an olive branch during his address marking the new year. The pace of inter-Korean détente has seen the US become diplomatically isolated, and Trump’s acceptance of a summit meeting could be a mechanism to regain the diplomatic initiative.
That’s assuming Trump’s acceptance of a summit meeting reflects some substantive policy process, which as I have noted is a dangerous assumption to make when it comes to the Trump administration. There exists a lot of confusion regarding just how Trump’s acceptance of a summit meeting with Kim has come about, and what Trump thinks North Korea’s real position on the future of its nuclear weapons programme really is. There even exists confusion about whether the summit will even go ahead.
That lends credence to the view that Trump’s declaration of acceptance of a summit meeting does not reflect a substantive policy making process. The substance, that is the substantive policy positions of both parties, hasn’t really changed. North Korea still abides by the view that nuclear weapons are vital to its security, whereas the United States insists that any meaningful relationship depends upon North Korean denuclearisation.
When we look at the Trump administration carefully we see that Trump is a type of buffoon that engages in all manner of razzle dazzle to divert the public, especially via his absurdist Twitter account, whilst behind the scenes the most harsh of right wing policies are being assiduously pursued, indeed pursued with an altogether grotesque relish. The razzle dazzle from the buffoon grabs the attention of the public, but that only serves to divert the public from the substance of policy. The Kim-Trump summit, indeed the very prospect of one to be dangled before the public for a while perhaps, diverts us whilst in the background something altogether nasty is afoot. That could be the case now.
What might happen should the summit indeed take place, or should it not go ahead? I fear that the summit could be another Reykjavik. At the Reykjavik summit meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1986, the United States and the Soviet Union almost agreed to a process of nuclear disarmament. That agreement didn’t happen because, in part Reagan was committed to “Star Wars” or the SDI programme, but crucially because Washington’s then showman in chief, more a method actor than today’s buffoon, was taught the facts of life by his senior officials. The Reykjavik summit is regarded as a great disappointment, one of the greatest of the nuclear era.
The Kim-Trump summit, should it go ahead, could be another great disappointment given that the positions of the two parties has not changed much, if at all. Furthermore, should the prospect of a summit serve as a bit of glitz for a while but nonetheless not go ahead doubtless the North Koreans can, and will, be blamed for this.
For those in Washington who seek to wage a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea to disarm Pyongyang through the application of military firepower a summit of disappointment or hopes for a summit dashed by North Korean perfidy, would be just the tonic they need. But that would apply not just to them. Either prospect would serve to undercut inter-Korean détente, so addressing the threat of diplomatic isolation, whilst pointing the finger at Pyongyang.
During the war in Bosnia it was often said that the time to duck was during a ceasefire. Let us hope that a Kim-Trump summit doesn’t become the time to duck and cover.