Earlier this month, President Trump surprised the global community by agreeing to talks with Kim Jong-un by the end of May. The decision to meet directly with the North Korean dictator came just two weeks after the conclusion of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the North received accolades from the international media while suggesting its willingness for rapprochement with the South. However, from North Korea’s record on the international stage to the various actors’ strategic interests, there are multiple factors that should prompt caution about the effectiveness of diplomacy with Kim Jong-un’s regime.
First, North Korea has long been dishonest about its nuclear weapons program. The country entered into the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1985 but then threatened to withdraw in 1994. Faced with this proliferation crisis, the Clinton administration and Kim Jong-il’s regime signed the Agreed Framework, whose terms froze Pyongyang’s plutonium weapons program in exchange for America constructing light-water nuclear reactors. Alleged nuclear weapons development throughout the late 1990s resulted in sanctions against Pyongyang, but it was not until 2002 that absolute proof was given that North Korea had violated the Agreed Framework and restarted its weapons program. Despite further sanctions and the “Six-Party Talks” between the United States, North Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea, the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Since then, the dance of deception has continued and intensified to the climactic levels of the past year, when North Korea’s nuclear capabilities increased in both distance and deadliness.
Keeping in mind North Korea’s record of dishonesty, President Trump would do well to keep the arrows of US force close at hand (force being anything from sanctions and trade embargoes to armed deterrence), even as he extends the olive branch of peaceful negotiation. There simply is no guarantee that Pyongyang will implement any deal it agrees to.
Second, because of President Trump’s unconventional approach to these bilateral talks, he has little room for error. Bilateral negotiations typically begin with lower-level diplomats conducting the meetings, but in this case, both heads of state are meeting together. This atypical setup suggests a desire for straightforwardness, and could be a positive indicator. President Trump’s direct style may be successful with Kim Jong-un, who has shown little regard for international norms.
On the other hand, President Trump’s erratic behavior and his desire to “make a deal” may add uncertainty to the negotiations, or even worse, alienate Kim Jong-un even further from the possible rapprochement with the United States. If these talks do not succeed, there will be no higher authorities within the US government available to take over once the two leaders have gone their separate ways. In the ongoing nuclear games with North Korea, the stakes are higher than ever, and while Trump could emerge with the ultimate deal, it is equally possible that he will emerge with nothing to show for his decision to meet with the North’s authoritarian leader.
Third, even if the bilateral talks in May have the best possible outcome and Kim Jong-un agrees to permanently halt his nuclear weapons program, the United States will still have to contend with the North as a regional threat to American allies. The Korean War laid waste to the South using only conventional military forces, not nuclear ones, and the skirmishes between Northern and Southern troops remind us of the constant threat of another conflict. Pyongyang boasts one of the world’s largest standing armies, and it could prove a threat to another close American ally, Japan. Finally, even though China and Russia have acted as both negotiators in multilateral talks and military checks on Pyongyang’s power, Beijing and Moscow have a vested interest in using North Korea’s military power as a buffer to the American presence in the region.
Even as President Trump conducts bilateral talks in May, he must remember that the North’s nuclear disarmament alone will not guarantee peace and stability in East Asia. He should continue to support allies both in the face of open threats such as North Korea and against the growing reach of Chinese and Russian power.
While peaceful negotiation is always preferable to war, negotiation is only effective if it prevents further conflict. Sadly, the North Korean nuclear question will only provide a partial solution to the long-term question of Pyongyang’s role on the international stage: a non-nuclear North Korea still poses a conventional threat, and the authoritarian rule of the Kim dynasty has led to economic devastation and an abominable human rights record. Nonetheless, every step forward is still a step, so we hope and pray for the best possible outcome from President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un in the coming months.
Nathan Heath is a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, with degrees in international relations and music. He also studied at Davidson College and the University of Oxford and interned with the US House of Representatives, Opportunity International, and the Hudson Institute before working for a Virginia law firm. Nathan was a Fellow of both the Summit Oxford Study Centre and The Philos Leadership Institute in 2016 and also serves as the co-editor-in-chief of Integras: A Journal of Faith, Politics, and Society. He currently writes from his home in Richmond, Virginia, and this fall he will begin graduate school with a focus on international policymaking.
Photo Credit: Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un watches the “2015 combat aeronautics contest of air commanding officers of the Air and Anti-Air Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA)”. Photo released by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 30, 2015.