As the planned summit between the United States and North Korea was on, then off, and now on again, President Trump acknowledged that the phased dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was a possibility. Many in the media latched onto this as a reversal of the President’s pledge that there would be no concessions until Kim Jong Un completely eliminated his nuclear arsenal and capabilities. In fact, it is not a reversal. Rather, it is a pragmatic acknowledgment that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is complicated, and it cannot be accomplished in one fell swoop.
The mere scale of North Korea’s nuclear program makes the planned negotiations between the United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea, no simple task. This acknowledgement does not mean that the Trump Administration will make the same mistakes of previous administrations by giving aid and sanctions relief to North Korea in exchange for mere promises to get rid of its nuclear program. It is not only possible, but practical to admit that there will be phases involved if the two nations come to an agreement regarding denuclearization. The idea of packing up all of North Korea’s weapons and nuclear equipment and flying it out of the country is unrealistic and was never in the cards.
President Trump, with South Korea’s president sitting next to him, recently admitted, “It would certainly be better if it were all in one,” but then added, “Does it have to be?” While he did not answer that question, the answer seems obvious. There is a lot of water to cross between now and any final agreement. And, the President added, “There’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12.” His remarks are indicative of a leader who understands negotiations and who has a firm grasp of the complicated nature of dealing with a country, and its enigmatic leader, who are hard to read, who have a history of deceit, and who have been shut off from the world for over sixty-five years.
Whatever happens, it is a given that the upcoming summit is but a first step in reaching the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. In addition to the preliminary meetings presently taking place ahead of the actual summit, there will be meetings after as well. More than likely, there will be summits to follow the summit.
Meanwhile, we are witnessing the strategic posturing of both countries. North Korea’s Kim did not expect President Trump to quickly and enthusiastically accept the invitation to personally meet with him, an invitation delivered by South Korean officials following their unprecedented meeting with Mr. Kim. Since Trump’s acceptance of that invitation, North Korea has purposely sent mixed signals. For example, the North complained when the United States bragged that it was President Trump’s strong stance that pressured North Korea to the negotiating table. After stating it was not an issue, North Korea objected to the defensive joint military drills conducted by the U.S and South Korea, even though these military exercises have been ongoing since 1953.
Kim Jong Un made a second trip to China, after which he seemed to be cooling off to his offer of denuclearization. China, for its part, does not want to be sidelined in any watershed agreement that would eliminate the stand-off between North Korea and the United States. More than likely, China wants to leverage its influence with North Korea for their own purposes, especially when it comes to trade between China and the U.S. The President described China’s President Xi as a “world-class poker player’ and believes China encouraged Kim to stiffen his approach to the United States. “There was a different attitude by the North Korean folks after that meeting,” President Trump stated. While not happy with this gamesmanship, the President has repeated that he would walk away from the table if North Korea attempts (once again) to “play” the United States.
Trump also repeated the immense and potentially positive results for North Korea if they will negotiate in good faith and agree to give up their nuclear weapons. This includes, as the President said, immense wealth and prosperity for the North Korean people. Sanctions have crippled the North Korean economy. President Trump’s vow to never let the North have a nuclear missile capable of hitting the United States, and the threat of military actions if the North does not agree to negotiate, are also certainly factors in any decision ultimately made by Kim Jong Un.
Thus, in response to North Korea’s mixed messages, President Trump summarily canceled the summit last week. Undoubtedly, Kim Jong Un was not expecting that response from the U.S. President. So, in a matter of days, the North Koreans made it unmistakably clear that they do indeed want the two leaders to meet. In reality, they need an agreement with the United States while the United States simply desires such an agreement.
The real bottom line is whether North Korea will agree to denuclearize voluntarily, completely, and verifiably. The real test of the negotiations is not about the potential phases of any agreement, but whether the North will allow international inspectors to be permanently placed in North Korea to ensure the phases are taking place. That has not happened before. In 1998 and in 2007, after an initial agreement, North Korea ordered international inspectors out of the country. If Kim sticks with allowing intrusive inspections this time, then it is possible and practical to offer concessions that are staged according to the ongoing dismantling of its nuclear weapons programs. This would include not only the weapons the North possesses, but also its research and development facilities, as well as its enrichment facilities and capabilities.
The depth of North Korea’s weapons program, and the multiple locations of the various aspects of the program, necessarily entail phases in order to accomplish complete denuclearization. It is unrealistic to expect that this must be completed entirely before any good faith measures on the part of the United States. However, the good faith measures must be measured, implemented carefully, and complete fulfillment must come only after the North’s weapons are gone.
We are looking for assurances from Kim Jong Un. But Kim is also looking for assurances from us. We are in uncharted waters; however, that is actually the good news. No U.S. President has ever accomplished what President Trump has in regard to North Korea. Could it fall apart? Certainly. But we have never been closer to solving the problem of North Korea and bringing real, lasting peace to the Korean peninsula.
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