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Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s Low-Stakes Summit

Walter Russell Mead

The news from Korea is dramatic, but not quite historic. In the run-up to his proposed summit with Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un has floated a repackaged version of virtually every concession North Korea has ever proposed, from suspending its nuclear and missile tests to accepting the continuing presence of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula following a peace treaty between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Given that Messrs. Trump and Kim are two of the most unpredictable leaders in modern times, the frenzied pace of North Korean diplomacy has raised hopes for a breakthrough in the summit. But Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump are more likely to reframe the longstanding U.S.-North Korea standoff than to end it.

The first thing to understand is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not going away. Pyongyang is willing to sit at a table where their removal is discussed, and perhaps even to sign pieces of paper stating that their removal is a goal. But talking is one thing; disarming is something else.

The North Korean leadership follows the news. It knows what happened to Ukraine, to Saddam Hussein and to Moammar Gadhafi without nuclear arms. No piece of paper offers a country the serene peace of mind that it gets from a few atom bombs in the missile silos.

But there’s something else. Nuclear weapons aren’t only the centerpiece of North Korean security policy. They are the centerpiece of its political and economic strategy as well. The Kim dynasty hasn’t chosen the Chinese or Vietnamese path for prosperity based on international integration. Instead they cling to the idea of “juche,” or self-reliance, and have one of the least open, least dynamic economies in the world.

The reason is fear. Compared with China, where many companies have a market value greater than North Korea’s total gross domestic product, North Korea is a minnow swimming next to a whale. And there are other whales in the sea. If North Korea opened up for trade and investment, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese investors and traders would swallow it whole. The Kims would rather be the absolute rulers of a poor country than the former rulers of a middle-income one. North Korea spends an estimated 22% of its GDP on the military; that expenditure makes the country poorer but keeps the regime in control.

Those nukes give the Kims clout and they bring in cash. Kim Jong Un can provoke an international crisis by test- launching a missile; few other leaders of small and poor countries have that ability. China, Japan, South Korea and even the U.S. have been willing to make economic and political concessions to keep Pyongyang sweet. North Korea won’t trade all that away for a treaty. That the U.S. is negotiating with North Korea rather than bombing it surely seems to the Kims like proof that their nuclear strategy has worked.

But if Mr. Kim doesn’t want to give up his nukes, the U.S. doesn’t want war. Besides the 28,500 troops, there are more than 200,000 American civilians in South Korea on any given day. The first day of hostilities in a new Korean War could see tens of thousands of U.S. civilian casualties with more to come. The total cost of such a war in treasure and in blood is both incalculable and unacceptable.

This is the basic standoff that has shaped U.S.-North Korea diplomacy since the 1990s. But something has changed. The world has been living with North Korean nuclear weapons for a long time; what is new and destabilizing is the prospect of North Korean missiles that could deliver nuclear bombs to the U.S. mainland. That worries Americans; it also worries leaders of other Asian countries, who wonder whether America would protect them from North Korea when U.S. cities are within range.

On the North Korean side, meanwhile, the bargaining table looks attractive not only because the latest sanctions have been biting but because it hopes a stronger alignment with South Korea might ultimately drive a wedge between Seoul and its American and Japanese friends.

What Mr. Kim seems to be signaling is not a willingness to settle all outstanding differences between his hermit kingdom and the U.S.; that would require concessions neither side is willing to make. Rather, he is signaling a willingness to help Mr. Trump if Mr. Trump will help him. North Korea would accept denuclearization as a goal and suspend nuclear testing; the U.S. would agree to lift some sanctions and support negotiations about peace. The key will be the missile program; if Mr. Kim agrees to freeze it in place, Trump can claim a win, peace talks can proceed, and everyone can make pious speeches about denuclearization.

Critics will say this is more about can-kicking than peace-making and they won’t be wrong, but sometimes kicking is all you can do.

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