Editor’s Note: Jamie Metzl is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. He has served on the US National Security Council, at the State Department and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and is the author of “Genesis Code” and “Eternal Sonata” and the forthcoming book “Homo Sapiens 2.0: Genetic Enhancement and the Future of Humanity.” Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
If their goal is to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat, the planned talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are doomed before they even begin.
There is nothing inherently wrong with negotiating with North Korea, but the Trump administration seems to have found the negotiation path that maximizes the potential benefits to the North Koreans while minimizing the benefits to the US and its allies.
The United States was already at a disadvantage in its dealings with North Korea because the Trump administration has no coherent strategy for dealing with North Korea, while North Korea’s leaders have an extremely smart strategy for America. Beginning from the first day of the planned Kim-Trump talks, the US will have already given North Korea the legitimation Pyongyang has sought for decades, a reduction in tensions and a nod toward ending the state of war on the Korean peninsula – in exchange for very little.
From North Korea’s perspective, the legitimacy that comes from a leadership meeting with a US president and ongoing negotiations as an equal are big wins. Now that it has established a credible nuclear deterrent, North Korea has every incentive to reduce tensions in the region as long as the Kim regime retains its absolute control inside the country and uses the leverage nuclear weapons provide internationally. That’s why the series of confidence-building measures North Korea has already announced and likely will negotiate – including a hotline phone connecting North and South Korea’s top leaders, a nuclear testing and long-range missile launch freeze, and perhaps even some preliminary inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency – make sound strategic sense for North Korea.
But because North Korea’s leaders see nuclear weapons as the primary survival strategy of their regime, they will not ultimately give up those weapons unless the costs of keeping them are greater than the costs of giving them up. The only way they will reach this conclusion is if they believe either that the US is going to use military force to overthrow their government or that China is going to completely cut the country off from trade and aid if they don’t give up their nukes. Neither of these scenarios is possible.
The US will not attack because the only way to ensure escalation dominance over North Korea is by being prepared to launch an all-out war and accept hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of casualties. There is no viable “bloody nose” military strategy for the United States and everybody knows it. This gives the North Koreans an advantage.
China will not pressure North Korea to the point of regime collapse because Beijing has already decided it would rather have a nuclear armed and semi-hostile North Korea on its border than a reunified Korea, allied with the United States. China is very willing to pressure North Korea, just not to the point where Kim would have to choose between giving up nuclear weapons and remaining in power. Sanctions are definitely hurting North Korea, but Pyongyang is smartly betting that China will make sure the sanctions never hurt so much as to destabilize the North Korean regime.
Given these strategic realities, the Kim-Trump talks will be a great photo opportunity and certainly lead to some feel-good, confidence-building measures. Trump will continue to tweet about the progress being made, and he won’t be entirely wrong. If the goal of the talks is to decrease tensions on the Korean peninsula, they will succeed but with a significant catch.
When it becomes clear that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, the US will have a choice of accepting North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and working to contain it like it did with the Soviet Union; going to war to overthrow the North Korean regime and eliminate the nuclear threat; or putting more pressure on North Korea to start a new round of negotiations that will at best end in the same stalemate it faces today. Ultimately, the US, holding its nose and under pressure from South Korea and China, will most likely choose the first option. The cost of forcing North Korea to give up all of its nuclear weapons will simply be too high.
It is possible to imagine a comprehensive US grand strategy that pressures China to play a more decisive role in helping denuclearize North Korea and offers North Korea a palatable alternative to nuclear weapons. This path would require thinking strategically, supporting and deploying America’s combined diplomatic, economic and military power, embracing the Trans Pacific Partnership, working closely with allies and doing a host of other things the Trump administration has proven wholly incapable of doing.
Even with current levels of US strategic incoherence, a collapse of the North Korean regime under the weight of its own brutality and contradictions could change everything and be great news for almost everyone. Hoping for this outcome is just not a strategy.
By bumbling into face-to-face talks with Kim, Trump has certainly helped reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, but the Trump administration has so far done very little to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat. When this becomes clear, today’s feel-good moment will feel more like an awful hangover.