Hold the talk of Nobel Peace Prize here. For now. But my money is on President Donald Trump pulling off the biggest coup in the history of North-South Korean relations. I think he will end the Korean War, permanently, and establish a framework for the North Koreans to follow into real peace, and an exit of American troops from the theater.
After meeting in New York with Kim Yong-choi, a top North Korean negotiator, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it would be "nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste."
The New York Times is not so sanguine about the potential upside of these meetings, while noting the rarity of this flurry of activity.
Michael Green, a former senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, said the flurry of diplomatic activity had already led South Korea, Russia and China to either propose, consider or undertake a softening of sanctions.
“North Korea’s goal is to defuse sanctions, and it’s already working,” Mr. Green said. “There’s nothing that the North Koreans have put on the table that suggests any serious intent to denuclearize.”
Here's why my money is on Trump to make a deal.
First, I don't think Trump will hold to the "fully verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" demand. I think he's completely aware that the Kim dynasty can't agree to it, and if they did, it would be a lie. I think he'll shoot for it, and scale back to ending future development and missile technology. Trump has never been a fan of non-proliferation, and for decades, he's noted that nuclear weapons are just another (horrific, to be sure) tool in our arsenal.
Second, because Trump won't fall into the "we must denuclearize" hole, he won't hold out carrots for the North to take and then renege. Trump will use sticks instead, and offer promises of his own, which may or may not come to fruition. He may promise to remove the 8th Army from South Korea, or reduce it to no more than a token (it's fairly close to that now), or to reduce the number of joint military exercises with the South.
The sticks will be further tightening of sanctions. Despite pressure from China and Russia to relax sanctions to induce the North to denuclearize (again, a lie, that only helps China and Russia), Trump may continue to punish the North while at the same time promising the rewards.
That approach is completely opposite the previous administrations paths. During these prior thaws, America held back on the personal meetings, recognition, and promises until the carrots had been taken, and by then, of course, its' too late. National Security Adviser John Bolton has seen all that before. The North Koreans lie (it's part of their culture). But they might be forced into some kind of action--say, signing a permanent treaty to end the Korean War, and agreeing to a framework to reduce conventional forces at the DMZ--to receive the carrot this time, or at least to stop getting hit by the stick.
The difference between getting a spoken promise and a signed treaty is universes apart. Even if the Kims break the treaty, it's there, and a major achievement. Just the kind of thing Trump likes, because his name will be on it.
Finally, a personal meeting between Trump and Kim has immeasurable value. I would not put it past Trump to leak significant U.S. intelligence, capabilities, and secrets to the North Korean leader. He may offer things that would put some intelligence sources in danger. But the message he carries will be clear: Kim can be killed, and America can kill him when we want to.
Yes, that's right. I think Trump will function like the mob boss he's been accused by James Comey of acting like. I think there's a good chance he'll threaten Kim, to his face. Nothing works like a personal death threat. Kim suddenly won't care as much if his regime survives, because he'll be focused on himself surviving. He knows that attacking South Korea is suicide. As bloody as it might be, there is no way the North can win.
In fact, the only way North Korea could ever rule over the South is by political unification. That's a very long way away, but it's the message Trump and his administration (listen to Pompeo's remarks) have to deliver. It has the benefit of being the truth, the one truth Kim can't lie about.
When I say "rule over the South" I mean that the Kim family can survive, and have a semi-autonomous state, with the benefits of South Korean wealth, and the protection of their own assets. The people of North Korea, however, would be free to travel to the South (whether they'd be free to emigrate is a different story). A permanent treaty and move toward actual political unification is the only way forward for Kim, and nuclear or not, that's going to be Trump's goal.
This could be a feint by North Korea. It could be another attempt to play the game the old way. And I encourage the president to not play that game, as he hasn't been playing it all along. A man accustomed to lying and obscuring the truth understands someone who was raised to do the same thing.
My money is on Trump, that he's changed the game with North Korea, and that this will eventually yield the fruit we've waited decades to see.
(A disclaimer here. I shouldn't have to say this: but this doesn't change my opinion of Trump as a moral example--he isn't one. It doesn't change my view of Trump's infantile and glandular instincts. It doesn't change my standards of when Trump should be praised and when he should be condemned, policy by policy and tweet by tweet. I simply believe that in matters like this--personal and up close negotiations--few people have the mojo that Trump brings to the table.)