In Victory for Trump, Kim Says He’s Ready to End Nuclear Testing

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There are two ways to look at Kim Jong Un’s announcement on Friday that he is prepared to give up any further nuclear testing as well as the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The first way is to view this as an unprecedented step forward when it comes to world peace and a major victory for President Donald Trump. With a potent combination of forceful rhetoric, military threats, economic sanctions, and international diplomacy, Trump has done what none of his White House predecessors could do: Force North Korea into a situation so impossible that they had no choice but to come to the table with concessions. Trump is the first American leader to invite bilateral talks with Kim Jong Un, and while his openness to dialogue has irritated the foreign policy establishment, his commitment to a fresh approach could ultimately make the difference between success and failure.

Let’s call that the optimistic view.

The more pessimistic view is found by noticing that while Kim has promised to slow his roll when it comes to antagonizing the West and South Korea, he did not promise to give up those weapons that he has already developed. In fact, in his Friday announcement, he called his nuclear weapons program a major success and seemed to indicate, subtly, that the U.S. and allies would now have to accept Pyongyang as a legitimate nuclear power. To him, “denuclearization” may not match what the Trump administration has in mind.

To be sure, even when seen from the pessimistic viewpoint, this is still a big step forward. In fact, many North Korea experts do not believe that it’s realistic to assume that any amount of pressure short of annihilation will put the genie back into the nuclear bottle. Kim Jong Un sees his nukes as the security blanket keeping his regime in power, and there may not be any diplomatic avenue towards convincing him otherwise.

Like most totalitarians, he simply doesn’t care about his subjects. So winning him over with economic aid, foreign development, and various incentives of this sort…it may be a dead end. He may even see the economic and lifestyle improvement of the population as a direct threat to his power.

If President Trump and other world leaders accept North Korea as a permanent nuclear power, it will send an unmistakable signal to other rogue actors on the world stage: Develop some nukes, and the world will have no choice but to take you seriously.

On the other hand, perhaps that message has already been sent, regardless of what happens between Trump and Kim next month. The best option for now may be for Trump to find a way to talk Kim down from his place of ongoing aggression and slowly – SLOWLY – invite him back into the realm of civilized international cooperation. It’s not the idea, situation, but for a president committed to realism, it may be the best option on the table.