On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that the meeting between Chairman Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump in Vietnam on 27-28 February (or any subsequent meeting) will end with a clear and irreversible commitment to the ‘denuclearisation’ of North Korea? Zero.
What are the chances that this summit (plus lots of further negotiations) could substantially reduce the threat of war between the two participants in this week’s meeting in Hanoi, and also between the two states in the Korean peninsula? Quite good, actually.
Kim Jong-Un, and his father and grandfather before him, have devoted enormous time and money to providing North Korea with an effective nuclear deterrent against the United States, which requires the ability to strike the American homeland. He may make all sorts of other deals, but he will never give that up.
North Korea doesn’t need to match US nuclear capabilities – the ability to deliver only a few nuclear weapons on American soil would be a sufficient deterrent – but Kim will be well aware of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, heads of state who both died precisely because they didn’t have nuclear weapons.
There is no deal available that would protect North Korea from US nuclear weapons, since they can reach the North directly from the United States. No amount of local disarmament – the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, even the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from all of East Asia – could change that reality, and the United States is not planning to abolish its strategic nuclear deterrent.
The only safe road to the future, therefore, is a political deal that greatly reduces tensions between the two countries while acknowledging that a state of MUTUAL nuclear deterrence will henceforward prevail between them.
Mutual deterrence is what has now obtained for a long time between the United States and its two peer rivals, Russia and China. The huge asymmetry between the power of the US and North Korea does not lead to a different conclusion. Nuclear weapons are the great leveller: in practical terms, just a few are enough to deter, even if the other side has hundreds of times as many (which the United States does).
It’s going to be a long negotiating process, because few Americans are ready yet to accept that this is the logic of the situation. Many would even reject it on the grounds that Kim Jong-Un is crazy and might make a first strike against the United States, although there is no evidence to support that belief. Being a cruel dictator is not at all the same as being suicidal, and a nuclear attack on the United States would be suicide.
Trump almost certainly does not understand that the only successful outcome of this negotiation must be mutual deterrence. Indeed, most senior American officials, although far wiser and better informed than Trump, still do not accept that fact. But they will probably get there in the end, and the negotiations will lead them along the path.
That’s why Trump’s fulsome praise of the North Korean leader, however naive – “He wrote me beautiful letters and we fell in love” – is actually helpful. So is the vagueness on all the hard questions that marked the first Kim-Trump summit last June, and will doubtless mark this one as well.
Equally useful is South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s parallel initiative to get a North Korean-South Korean detente underway. Cross-border trade and travel, the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park (where South Korean industries were producing goods using hundreds of thousands of North Korean workers), and direct meetings between Moon and Kim (three in the past year) all help to build confidence about a peaceful future.
A much better relationship, not unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament, is the right goal to aim for. The kind of concessions that could help include a gradual relaxation of the sanctions that stifle the North Korean economy and a formal peace treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, perhaps in return for very big cuts in North Korea’s huge conventional army (twice the size of South Korea’s, in a country with half the population).
Later on, there could be talks about permanently capping the number of North Korean nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (which is still in the dozens, not the thousands), in return for withdrawing some or all of the US troops from South Korea. But leave that stuff for now and just work on confidence-building measures.
Holding this summit in Vietnam was a good move, since it will show Kim a country that has built a prosperous economy without ceasing to be a Communist-ruled dictatorship. He will be much more flexible if he believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can open up the North Korean economy without being overthrown.
And there’s no need to work on building up Donald Trump’s confidence.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“That’s…future”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.