Around the Christmas holiday, dismayed American observers were transfixed as Donald Trump affirmed his desire to abandon the containment of Iran and the Islamic State in Syria, prompting the resignation in protest of his defense secretary and the diplomatic professionals who manage that portfolio. But many Americans probably missed the simultaneous collapse of Donald Trump’s efforts to contain the threat posed by North Korea.
A commentary published by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency in late December affirmed North Korea’s belief that “denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula “should be defined as ‘completely eliminating the U.S. nuclear threat to Korea’ before it can eliminate our nuclear deterrent.’” That’s not exactly news; this is how the North Koreans have always defined “denuclearization.”
For Pyongyang, neutralizing the nuclear threat to the Peninsula means that the United States must withdraw all conventional and nuclear-capable forces from the Republic of Korea and Japan. Of course, North Korea’s view of what should properly constitute “denuclearization” is unacceptable to the United States and its allies, and this is the impasse that has prevailed for decades. The only news in this announcement is that North Korea’s position hasn’t softened at all over the months-long diplomatic effort to convince Pyongyang to abandon this non-starter. But that, too, should come as no surprise. North Korea never stopped acting in bad faith.
In the months that elapsed since President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang has demonstrated no willingness to disarm. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has continued to develop nuclear fuel, expand long-range missile production facilities, and build nuclear weapons. Despite the assurances of administration figures like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that one was forthcoming, Pyongyang hasn’t even provided U.S. officials with an inventory of its nuclear weapons and capabilities—the most meager of gestures that would suggest North Korea is a serious negotiating partner.
You might think all this would chasten the Trump administration. After all, the president allowed himself to be used by North Korea’s criminal despot for a photo op, and the threat Washington sought to mitigate remains as potent as ever. You’d be wrong. Despite North Korea’s recalcitrance, the Trump administration seems willing as ever to reward Kim Jong-un. How else can anyone explain the appetite in Washington for a second bilateral summit between Kim and the American president?
“They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said in early December. “That’s why I think the president thinks another summit is likely to be productive.” It’s hard to imagine a more aspirational assumption.
Immediately preceding the ill-considered Singapore summit, Bolton indicated that it was possible for the North Koreans to “dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic missile programs in a year.” That is, as long as Kim had made the strategic decision to exchange his weapons program for integration into the global community. But why should he? The isolation and stigmatization under which North Korea labored are lifting even as it holds tight to its functioning nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong-un arrived this week in Beijing for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of a possible meeting with Trump. Kim’s sojourn beyond North Korea’s borders has become routine, but that wasn’t always the case. Kim’s visit to Beijing in March of 2018 was his first trip beyond North Korea’s borders as supreme leader. It confirmed that he had solidified his grip on power while mollifying forces in China that regarded his provocative behavior as a threat to Beijing’s efforts to project influence abroad. A month later, Kim traveled to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Both Koreas are now trying to jumpstart once moribund joint economic projects, and Moon has repeatedly affirmed his desire to host the North Korean dictator in Seoul at his soonest convenience. Kim bathed in a rock star’s reception in Singapore—a coup that the regime had sought for decades—and the Trump administration hopes to reprise the performance. It’s begun looking into venues in places that range from Bangkok to Hanoi. They’re even reportedly considering hosting Kim on American soil.
It’s not clear what the Trump administration hopes to gain from a second summit with Kim, but what its willing to sacrifice is obvious. Administration members have already given it up. The evidence is mounting that the sanctions regime this and past American administration’s established is putting serious pressure on the North Korean economy and forcing Kim to reevaluate Pyongyang’s hostility toward private enterprise. The North Korean threat does not begin and end with nuclear weapons. The threat this criminal regime poses to the civilized world will persist as long as it survives. With that in mind, the White House’s objective should be to continue weakening Pyongyang’s control over its citizenry, not strengthening it.
North Korea is being led into the light, and its newfound legitimacy is directly attributable to its successful development of a nuclear deterrent. With a full understanding that its survival is predicated on nuclear capability, the North Korean regime has reaffirmed its unattainable definition of “denuclearization.” In response, the Trump administration should revisit the definition of insanity.