Unless a Twitter storm intervenes, the “Little Rocket Man” and Donald Trump will meet in the flesh at Santosa Island’s 5-star Capella Hotel on June 12. A quarter-mile off the Singapore mainland, the island is appropriately named. In Malay, santosa means “peace and tranquility,” which should be a good omen. But don’t fall for heavenly signs; look at the hard-core realities instead. These do not presage a history-transforming grand bargain.
The Trump Administration keeps insisting on North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization—and with all due speed. Kim Jong-un naturally wishes to go slow, if he wants to move on his nukes at all, and to pocket plenty of goodies in the process—material as well as symbolic ones.
So Kim will flatter Trump and stroke his ego. He will offer piecemeal concessions and parcel them out over the long haul. Or both will agree to cobble together a grandiose framework flanked by the usual diplomatic boilerplate, such as overcoming ancient enmities and working hand in hand for peace and understanding.
The nitty-gritty, to be ladled out in small portions, would be left to the lower-level negotiators. Maybe, Trump will grant Kim liaison offices in both capitals so as to hold back on full-scale diplomatic recognition. Perhaps Kim will let some inspectors into the country, but only to carefully chosen places that do not reveal the true size of North Korea’s bomb and long-range missile program.
Whatever the scenario, there is one reasonable bet: Neither Trump nor Kim, who threatened to nuke each other not that long ago, will want to walk off Peace-and-Tranquility Island with nothing to show, let alone in a blaze of fury and recrimination.
But complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization? Don’t hold your breath, even though South Korea’s President Moon, after descending from his own summit with Kim, reported that Kim was indeed eager to please. Yes, he would accept “complete denuclearization.” Credible this pledge is not.
First, look at history. Only one country has ever dismantled its autonomous nuclear arsenal: South Africa.1 Yet the only similarity between Pretoria and Pyongyang is the “P” in the names of their capitals. When South Africa announced in 1993 that it had scrapped its six primitive bombs, their strategic-political value had shrunk below zero. Whom were they supposed to deter? The USSR was gone, the Cubans had pulled out of Angola, and the African National Congress, previously the deadly enemy of the Boer regime, was now a partner in undoing the apartheid system. Pretoria had the bomb, but no targets. Why continue to suffer sanctions and international pariah status?
In all other cases, nations have yielded their nuclear assets only under duress. Whatever Saddam Hussein had assembled was undone by the American invasion in 2003. In the same year, Libya’s Qaddafi folded for fear of suffering Saddam’s fate. Can Trump scare Kim? No. North Korea already has the Bomb, and thus an iron law of the nuclear age kicks in: Never has a nuclear power been attacked directly by another such power. Add in Kim’s case that North Korea is being sheltered by its mighty Chinese protector next door.
Supposedly eying “complete denuclearization,” Kim will also recall the fate of Ukraine, which gave away 1,700 ex-Soviet warheads in exchange for the guarantee of its territorial integrity by the United States, Britain, and Russia. It was a treacherous deal. Since then, Moscow has grabbed Crimea directly, and Ukraine’s southeast with the help of its surrogates. Nor did Qaddafi profit from giving away his rudimentary nuclear facilities. In 2011, NATO bombed his country, and he was murdered by his domestic foes.
Compare such loss-leaders with the profits amassed by Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-il. The “Hermit Kingdom,” not exactly a great power, bestrides the globe in the company of America and China. It basks in the attention of the world. Pyongyang has been able to turn blackmail into a strategic art, exacting, as in Bill Clinton’s days, fuel oil deliveries—plus the promise of normalized relations and efficient power reactors in exchange for scrapping the country’s plutonium-breeders that are all but useless as electricity generators.
Like father, like son. Kim père wrote the book, and Kim fils has proven a master of the dark art of converting weakness into strength. The pattern should be familiar by now. Project good will and rope the great powers, especially the United States, into negotiations. Pretend that your vows of denuclearization are sincere, gain global attention and material rewards—and keep building those nukes and their delivery vehicles. Don’t fret about sanctions. In the end, Big Brother in Beijing will blunt their bite. China has absolutely no interest in seeing North Korea collapse.
North Korea tested its first nuclear device 12 years ago, in 2006. Since then, five more tests have followed—sanctions and all. Why would Kim Jr. give away what has turned his country into a starring global player and blessed the regime with a nuclear life-insurance policy?
But set aside these realpolitik ruminations. Imagine instead a cheery outcome on Santosa Island. What exactly would “complete denuclearization” look like when America’s intelligence services argue over the exact number of Kim’s nuclear weapons? Some say “20,” others say “60.” How many nuclear facilities are spread across the country, 40 or 100? You would need an army of highly trained inspectors to get the answers right, assuming that they would be able to roam the country at will.
Does Mr. Trump know what he is talking about when he insists on verifiability? These negotiations will drag on forever. Meanwhile, Kim will have pocketed the Big Prize: his face-to-face with the mightiest man on earth, and on a global stage, to boot.
Diplomacy 101 says: Don’t go to a summit unless your subordinates have hashed out the details of a realistic deal. As a rule of thumb, such an agreement takes about a year to negotiate before the principals meet. It took 20 months to conclude the JCPOA with Iran, not to speak of so many failed attempts in the years before. Yet Tehran did not even have nuclear weapons; Pyongyang does.
Only one country, South Africa, has ever given away the Bomb—when Pretoria realized that it was a waning asset while the political costs kept rising. For Kim, the Bomb is like Christmas every day of the year.
1. Ukraine and Belarus, which gave up Soviet-era nuclear weapons stationed on their soil, don’t make for good analogies because the warheads were beyond their control. Triggering them required activating hard-to-crack and ever-changing“permissive action links” in the hands of the Kremlin.