None of us know how North Korea’s
Kim Jong Un
really sees his situation, but the question is absorbing in light of his apparent panic to resurrect Tuesday’s Kim-Trump summit. Mr. Kim already has adequate deterrent in his ability to blanket nearby Seoul with conventional high-explosive and chemical artillery shells. Threatening the U.S. with long-range nuclear missiles is not necessary to assure his security, only for other purposes.
Rising prosperity and growing international exchange, likely North Korean goals at Tuesday’s summit, would not be all upside for the regime. Direct traffic between the two Koreas is especially risky. But the status quo is also risky for Mr. Kim.
He’s master of a miserably backward country, overseen by a regime that deserves to be reviled by its people. His economy is desperately dependent on a life-support machine operated by unsympathetic people in Beijing. Pyongyang has a special problem in the infinitely superior development of its sister nation, South Korea. If the South surrendered to the North tomorrow, in two weeks it would end up running the place purely due to its superior productivity and world-class technical and cultural know-how.
He wants to live to be 95, large and in charge. Mr. Kim’s big geopolitical concern is not, and never has been, the U.S. It’s China. If China ever gets tired of his regime’s existence, the lights go out in Pyongyang overnight. His nuclear threats spoken and unspoken, including the threat to traffic in atomic material to other regimes or terrorists, are likely in some sense aimed at getting the U.S. to solve this problem for him.
A deal, for all these reasons, is plausible and might satisfy Mr. Trump. Mr. Kim would restrict himself to short-range theater nukes in return for a U.S. peace treaty and a reduction in the incessant U.S. and South Korean military exercises that are such a costly burden to the North. What Mr. Kim really wants is something more: In effect, he wants the U.S. to become an undeclared patron and investor in the longevity of his regime. He wants (as
secretly does) to become an undeclared client whose survival the U.S. prefers for reasons of geopolitical stability and to constrain Beijing.
Which brings us to
He perhaps is not the results-oriented craver of any kind of agreement for its own sake that many suspect. Mr. Trump has not been a results guy in his career for 20 years. He requires action for its own sake, to keep himself the center of attention, to make sure nobody outbids him for the spotlight.
He has already gotten 12 weeks of showtime out of the prospect of a North Korea summit. A burble on cable TV about his winning the Nobel Peace Prize was immediate gratification that outweighs even the somewhat conceivable prospect of a real prize down the road.
Imperiously declining in late May to meet with Mr. Kim while even then throwing out all kinds of come-ons gave Mr. Trump a perfectly good week on Korea from his standpoint.
If Mr. Kim wants anything, he will have to come up with an offer knowing that dismissing it with a flourish is as useful to Mr. Trump as embracing it with a flourish. Mr. Trump, for all his faults, has understood better than his predecessors that the U.S. can be in the strong position if it wants to be. His predecessors made themselves supplicants to the Kim family, much as the Obama administration made itself a supplicant to Iran. They put themselves in the position of begging an adversary not to take steps that would require the U.S. to carry out its threats.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Trump has all the cards. But Mr. Kim perhaps understands that it’s all upside for Mr. Trump. Deal. No Deal. Summit. No Summit. From an America First perspective, what’s more, Mr. Trump might have no trouble selling himself and his supporters a deal that left the North in possession of nuclear weapons but got rid of its long-range ballistic missile program, to put the U.S. outside the range of the North’s nukes.
Nowhere in the “The Art of the Deal” does the author specify what Donald Trump would want in a negotiation with North Korea, but presumably the answer is “something that would be good for Donald Trump.”
Japan and South Korea would rightly regard such a deal as a sell-out. So would human-rights campaigners and probably the entirety of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. But Mr. Trump’s supporters did not elect him to obsess about North Korea or to put Japan’s security interests first. Such a deal would not solve every problem arising from North Korea’s possession of a nuclear program. But it would allow Mr. Trump to be seen looking conspicuously after America’s interests first.