Donald Trump’s unprecedented summit meeting with North Korean President Kim Jong-un could lead to a more peaceful world, or a return to fire-and-fury tweets and provocative military action.
It depends, in large part, on whether Trump listens to America’s ally, South Korean President Moon - who has a realistic sense of a process that could lead to peace on the Korean peninsula—or to his neoconservative National Security Advisor John Bolton, who seeks the overthrow of the North Korean regime.
Trump himself has no fixed policy views on Korea - or much else - and seems driven largely by his boundless narcissism.
On the one hand, this narcissism leads Trump to crave major a breakthrough with North Korea. He believes this would entitle him to a Nobel Peace Prize - Obama, after all, has a Nobel, so Trump wants one, too.
On the other hand, narcissism leads Trump to relish showing how tough he can be, which could lead to military conflict with North Korea and tens of thousands of deaths if the negotiations fail.
In broad brush strokes, there are two possible strategies towards North Korea.
The first, advocated forcefully by Trump's recently named National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is the “Libyan solution”—in which Libyan dictator Muammar Qadaffi gave up his nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees from the United States, only to be overthrown with U.S. military assistance.
Qadaffi ended up dead in a ditch with a bayonet up his butt. Not surprisingly, Bolton’s “Libyan solution” holds little appeal to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
If Bolton’s approach prevails with Trump, the risk of verbal confrontation, and possibly military confrontation, with North Korea increases dramatically.
A Path to Peace
The second strategy, is the one advocated in broad brush stokes by South Korean President Moon, is the only one with half a chance of a peaceful outcome.
That strategy would set forth a set of incremental concessions by the North Koreans, on the one hand, and the U.S. and South Korea, on the other hand. The long-term goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would remain intact, but would not be achieved quickly.
Rather, North Korea would stop testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and give up the majority nuclear weapons in a step-by-step process verified by an intrusive inspection regime. As the each step in North Korea’s reduction of its nuclear force is verified, some of the economic sanctions against the North would be lifted, also step by step.
If North Korea cheats, sanctions would be restored.
In exchange for meaningful steps to contain North Korea’s nuclear force, security guarantees for North Korea - backed up and enforced by the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and other members of the international community - would be put in place.
At some point during this process, a permanent Peace Treaty would be signed, ending the state of war between the U.S. and North Korea that has existed for the past 65 years, since active combat ended with a temporary armistice in 1953.
Whither the Summit?
If Trump’s narcissistic drive for a Nobel Prize triumphs, the Trump/Kim Summit could end with a somewhat general communiqué setting forth the peaceful goals of both parties and beginning the complex and lengthy process of experienced diplomats and technical experts negotiating the fine print of a peace process.
If, on the other hand, President Kim intentionally or unintentionally ruffles Trump’s ego, Trump could walk out of the Summit in a huff and resume belligerent rhetoric about “fire and fury” and possibly engage in provocative military actions that could lead to a disastrous war.
If that’s the outcome, Bolton will likely reemerge as Trump’s top Korea advisor, with his dangerous goal of overthrowing the North Korean regime, which could ultimately lead to a war causing millions of deaths.
As Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently said,
“If we can really get diplomacy to work, let’s advance it, but recognize, if you believe that he’s [Un] going to turn in his nuclear weapons in the next six months, it’s not going to happen. That’s unrealistic. Could we get inspections to make sure he’s really freezing a program? I think that’s realistic.”
Let’s hope that Trump’s Nobel dreams control his actions, and the Summit is the beginning of a peace process and not a catastrophe that leads the world closer to war.