A day after Don Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last year, T declared that Pyongyang was “no longer a nuclear threat,” though Kim made no specific commitment to abandoning nukes. Ten days later, T renewed longstanding sanctions on North Korea (DPRK), citing the “extraordinary threat” posed by Kim’s nukes.
But immediately after that brief summit, T called off vital tactical exercises with U.S. ally South Korea (RoK); he didn’t consult his own military, or RoK president Moon Jae-in. T claimed the joint exercises were “too expensive” at around $15 million.
Another patently absurd rationalization, this from a guy who wants to blow billions of bucks on his signature vanity boondoggle, the Great Wall of Trump. Just his personal travel expenses for the Hanoi junket exceeded $6 million.
Resorting to his usual insults, he trivialized the exercises: “look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games.” Merely games, fun and nice, but frivolous.
Last month, T permanently cancelled the annual spring exercises. That’s one of Kim’s longstanding goals.
Kim has an enormous conventional military force. Their equipment is outdated, but still lethal. Thousands of missiles and artillery tubes are kept targeted across the border on the RoK capital. One word from Kim, and Seoul disintegrates into smoke and shrapnel.
Kim’s nukes might never be used, due to the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation, but his use of conventional forces would be unlikely to invite a first-strike nuke attack. Forgoing our own nukes, we might find ourselves reprising the desperate struggle of May 1950.
Last May’s Foal Eagle drills involved 11,500 U.S. warriors and 290,000 South Koreans. We keep 28,500 troops rotating through deployments in the South. Each new batch needs training in communication and coordination with RoK forces, while identifying weaknesses. That’s why Kim wanted the exercises abolished.
He got what he wanted, despite providing nothing in return.
T claimed the Hanoi summit collapsed because Kim demanded lifting of all international sanctions, without proposing concrete steps to eliminate his nukes.
It wasn’t long before U.S. officials corroborated North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s account of the event. Kim had asked only for partial sanctions relief, in exchange for shutting down his main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Crucially, he did not demand lifting sanctions related to weapons sales and transfers; rather, his concerns focused on five kinds of sanctions relating to civilian economy and public livelihoods. “Sanctions” nearly always hurt ordinary people more than they hurt the perp.
But wait! There’s more!
In Hanoi, according to both U.S. and DPRK officials, T actually handed Kim a “list of demands” calling for Kim to “hand over” all his nukes and bomb fuel to the U.S. as a precondition of discussing any American concessions to the DPRK. T expected them to give him what he wants up front — and sacrifice Kim’s negotiating leverage — before he will address any steps Pyongyang proposes.
Should other countries perceive that it is our intransigence, not Kim’s, that precludes progress on the peninsula, it could create dissension within the sanctions regime. That in turn would reduce our own leverage for achieving constructive change.
Kim has shown no territorial ambitions, beyond pursuing the reunification of the Korean peninsula. He’s (belatedly) made boosting living standards a pillar of his reign’s legitimacy. Now that T has provided him with additional clout as a top-echelon World Leader, Kim feels more secure supporting his emerging middle class. Envying the economic powerhouse to the south, Kim hopes to enhance his regime’s survival by making the whole country better off.
Even if Kim were to agree in principle to renouncing nukes, he has an ace up his sleeve. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has identified 13 of an estimated 20 undeclared secret ballistic missile bases hidden in the mountains of the DPRK. They can accommodate all classes of ballistic missiles, from short-range to intercontinental. The rockets can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads.
Notably, these hidden bases are not launch sites themselves. They appear to be focused on preserving Kim’s missile arsenal in the event of a preemptive strike by the U.S. Just another back-up plan to augment Kim’s “aggressive camouflage, concealment, and deception program” which would make a preemptive nuclear strike untenable for taking out even the currently known launch sites.
The hidden bases feature underground tunnels for storing mobile erector launchers that could be rolled out and dispersed among pre-prepared launch sites.
Kim won’t renounce his nukes, though he might tease T into making more wrong-headed gestures driven by the hope that just one more gratuitous concession will soften Kim’s heart.
No nation that has possessed nukes has ever given them up.
T’s total denuclearization goals are sadly misconceived, and the maneuvers by which he pursues them laughable in their naivete.
RoK leader Moon’s approach to diplomacy had already enabled the two Koreas to join in useful negotiations (though not on the World Stage level Kim sought from T) and begun constructive, specific plans for muting the North’s nuclear belligerence. Trying to avoid being upstaged, T horned in with his “fire and fury” bluster, botched the summits and their aftermath, and negated hard-won progress.
If we can’t intimidate the DPRK into renouncing nukes, can we still find ways to accomplish peace and stability on the peninsula?
More on that next time.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.