By: Scott Jennings
President Donald Trump’s dramatic announcement that he will meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has stirred mixed feelings among conservatives who have previously expressed skepticism about engaging the murderous regime.
Rep. Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, summed up the fear and hope ahead of the meeting: “Remember, North Korean regimes have repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time. North Korea uses this to advance its nuclear and missile programs. We’ve got to break this cycle.”
North Korea has not conducted a missile test since November 28, although it has irritated the United State by sending supplies to Syria that “could be used in the production of chemical weapons” and testing a reactor that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
These new revelations about North Korean activity beyond its frequent missile tests, which once riled President Trump so that he warned North Korea it would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” raise the specter that Kim has no intention of denuclearizing or of being a better world actor. Recall that in 2005, under the leadership of Kim’s father, North Korea promised denuclearization but later reneged.
But this time may be different because of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which has clearly put the economic squeeze on Kim. Since Trump took over, the United States has “leveled some of its most significant and far-reaching sanctions…and has also succeeded in pressuring China to further isolate the regime,” according to CNN.
“The trucks coming from China have gone to almost none and it’s going to have a negative effect on North Korea’s economy in the coming months and years if the sanctions continue,” CNN’s Will Ripley said.
President Trump deserves enormous credit for ratcheting up sanctions and rallying the international community. How can you blame him for wanting to try something different by engaging in direct talks? After all, the last quarter century of U.S. policy delivered nothing but a North Korea with nuclear weapons. Perhaps it is time for a new approach, something Trump promised during his campaign.
There is risk in what the president is doing. Certainly, Kim may simply be stalling while he puts the finishing touches on his nuclear arsenal. He may also believe, now that he has nuclear weapons, the civilized world doesn’t have the fortitude to attack. On his way out the door, Trump’s now-excommunicated strategist Steve Bannon told a reporter that there was no “military solution” to this problem, a remark surely heard in Pyongyang.
Bannon’s statement was a stunning strategic error and he was fired just three days later. The Trump Administration must clearly communicate that we are ready, willing, and able to attack if necessary.
It is vital for Kim to understand that there only two roads out of this summit: denuclearize, cease human rights abuses, and become part of the international community; or face military and economic devastation at the hands of a fully committed international coalition.
For now, conservatives—even the most hawkish—should give President Trump credit for trying to break the logjam. How many nights in the last year did we wonder whether nuclear war was imminent? Too many, and thanks to the Trump Administration’s efforts the tension seems to be reduced, at least for now.
But we should not be Pollyanna. Now that they have nuclear weapons, something the North Koreans have desired since the 1950’s, will Kim really give them up so easily? In their eyes, achieving nuclear status means nothing short of regime survival. Of course, with sanctions drying up supplies to an already starving nation, Trump may have changed the definition of “survival.”
Trump’s critics have derided the inexperienced commander-in-chief for making a rash decision to meet, but they forget that Kim has never met another world leader and hasn’t been out of his country since taking over in 2011. True, the meeting provides Kim a status he has long craved, but his negotiating position been severely weakened by Trump’s sanctions.
Best case scenario – Trump shows the same resolve and fortitude in person that he has shown from afar, and Kim leaves understanding that the passive posture of previous American presidents has given way to a tougher commander-in-chief who absolutely will not allow nuclear weapons to be aimed at the United States by an unstable dictator.
Scott Jennings is a CNN Contributor and Partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ScottJenningsKY on Twitter. The online version contains hyperlinked citations. Jennings is currently a Resident Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.