Negotiating nuclear arms | The Triangle

Negotiating nuclear arms

Photograph courtesy of Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps/AFLO/Zoma Press/TNS

I couldn’t have imagined that I’d see Kim Jong Un shake hands with any foreigner other than Dennis Rodman in my lifetime, but here I am proven wrong. The April 27 summit between Kim and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in signals that he might, after all, be open to change.

Unlike his brutish father and grandfather, Kim spoke of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, and possible denuclearization. Both pieces of news have President Donald Trump ecstatic, and rightfully so. Moon, in a brilliant political move, credits Trump with bringing both parties to the table for peace, and Trump himself has proclaimed for months that he’d be able to negotiate with Kim to bring an end to the war, and an end to their nuclear program.

With these two announcements, he and his sycophants are already claiming victory. In reality, he is far from it. He must play the most careful game of nuclear-talk chess he’s ever played in his political career when bargaining with Kim, especially with a cabinet full of hawkish neoconservatives like John Bolton, if he wishes to actually win.

While the Korean War may be ending, North Korea is still a nuke-wielding independent nation, Kim Jong Un is still a despotic madman and a peace treaty hasn’t been signed yet. With this summit, there is potential to change all of these things. Kim may eventually decide to be the next Gorbachev and dissolve the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We may eventually have a unified Korean Peninsula, who knows?

With the right negotiator, he may give up part of his nuclear arsenal. One wrong move, though, and South Korea gets turned to sand, the United States gets involved in another war and angers North Korea’s primary backer, China. This fate will be decided by how Trump handles his upcoming denuclearization talks with Kim..

“Denuclearization” has two distinct meanings for both leaders. Hardliners like Bolton hope for the DPRK to give up its nuclear arsenal entirely, eliminating any deterrents and allowing for a possible regime change. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself,” Bolton, a known neocon warhawk, said during a speech on the now-abandoned Iran nuclear deal, and later predicted that “We will celebrate in Tehran!” There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to enact with North Korea the same neocon three-step guide to “negotiating,” which reads: 1. Take the country’s weapons; 2. Invade/topple leader; 3. Freedom (supposedly).

Kim knows that his nuclear arsenal, while feeble, is the only thing keeping the U.S. from invading. If America tried to invade the DPRK right now, it would turn South Korea and maybe even Japan to mere dust. He may not be able to strike America directly, but he could severely damage two nations critical to the world economy. He’d most likely be willing to give up long-range missile capability, but scuttling his entire supply of warheads is out of the question. Why get rid of his only deterrent to invasion? Kim, while a madman, isn’t an imbecile. He won’t give up his most effective method of defense to a power-hungry juggernaut notorious for conducting regime changes.

Will Trump live up to his claim as a brilliant negotiator? Or will he blow up his only chance of achieving compromise in the region by demanding too much? Given his previously cavalier and bombastic nature in dealing with North Korea, I can’t say my hopes are high.  

Hopefully James Mattis, his level-headed defense secretary, can keep him in line during the anticipated talks. If Trump manages to negotiate a partial denuclearization, it would be far from the ideal situation, but a crucial advance towards stability in the Korean Peninsula.