by Austin Bay
June 13, 2018
President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un have concluded their summit in Singapore.
The summit mixed theatrics and drama. At least two of the handshake photo ops included canny doses of Trumpian flattery. The summit produced a dictator's commitment to denuclearize and an agreement to continue discussions calculated to achieve denuclearization -- both indicative of promising diplomacy.
The phrase "a dictator's commitment" tempers the promise of peaceful resolution. Dictators break deals, and when they do, oppression certainly spreads, blood is shed and war may erupt. Adolf Hitler's disregarded Versailles and the wretched 1938 Munich Agreement, with grim results.
We know the Kim dictatorship habitually violates agreements. North Korea's 1968 Blue House Raid, authored by Kim Il Sung, shattered the 1953 Korean armistice. In 2009, his son, Kim Jong-Il, unilaterally declared the armistice "invalid." In 2011, Kim Jong-Il died and Kim Jong Un became dictator. In 2013, he one-upped his father and scrapped the armistice.
This untrustworthy and violent regime breaks agreements restricting nuclear weapons programs. It signed the Clinton administration's 1994 Agreed Framework, accepted its "soft power" economic benefits, and secretly continued its nuclear weapons quest. When caught by the Bush administration, North Korea slipped the "six nation talks" noose designed to squeeze it economically and politically then detonated a nuke in 2006.
The regime utterly suckered South Korea's Sunshine Policy which offered economic incentives in exchange for North Korean political moderation that never occurred. In 2010 Seoul terminated the Sunshine Policy.
In 2012, the "smart power" Obama administration watched as Kim Jong Un accelerated his nuclear and missile programs. That same year, a hot mic at a conference in South Korea caught Obama sending a message to Russia's Vladimir Putin that he would have more "flexibility" after the election regarding limiting American missile defense systems. A coincidence?
By 2016 and the end of the Obama administration, North Korea was clearly more dangerous than it was in 2011. It likely possessed several nuclear weapons and long-range missiles capable of striking North America.
Enter the Trump administration and a different approach: "maximum pressure" coordinated coercive diplomacy to eliminate North Korea's nukes.
On several occasions, I have written about Trump's October 1999 Meet the Press interview in which he summarizes America's weak responses to North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that interview has received scant mainstream media attention, for it clearly links to his administration's 2017-2018 North Korean "de-nuclearization" operation, to include the Singapore summit.
This 1999 quote has resonance: "First I'd negotiate," Trump said, "and be sure I could get the best deal possible... The biggest problem this world has is nuclear proliferation. And we have a country out there in North Korea which is sort of wacko, which is not a bunch of dummies, and they are developing nuclear weapons... If that negotiation doesn't work, then better solve the problem now than solve it later."
His critics hissed when the president said he had been preparing for Singapore his entire life, but the interview demonstrates two decades ago he understood the North Korean threat and the Clinton administration's flawed policies.
In March 2017, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson declared, "The policy of strategic patience" vis a vis North Korea was over and America and its allies were "exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table." That meant war to destroy North Korean nukes was a possibility. Trump would solve it now, with bombs, if necessary. Tillerson added that if North Korea didn't end its strategic weapons programs, Japan and South Korea might have to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. Did Beijing blanch?
Subsequent administration denuclearization diplomacy has reinforced those statements, in word and deed.
A lot of difficult issues remain unresolved. The harsh economic sanctions on Pyongyang remain in place. Singapore was a step toward peaceful resolution and for the allies one cost free in blood and money. Suspending U.S.-South Korean military exercises pending North Korean cooperation was a symbolic gesture allowing Kim to save a little face. The U.S. and South Korea can end the symbolic suspension in five seconds.