President Trump’s upcoming meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – announced Thursday night to a shocked world – is a stunning vindication of the president’s strategy and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s artful behind-the-scenes acumen. North Korea’s invitation for the meeting and President Trump’s acceptance marked a historic step. If a genuine rapprochement occurs on President Trump’s watch, leading to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the impact on global security and President Trump’s legacy will be enormous. But at this point, it’s important for President Trump and his foreign policy and defense team to proceed with extreme caution. While they deserve credit for cracking the North Korean silence, the historical record suggests this could be a trap, if not an intentional distraction. President Trump’s engaged, creative and blunt approach – with artful backroom diplomacy – has turned the dial. If this strategic opening leads somewhere, the Russia investigation of the 2016 election will become a footnote on world-changing achievement. President Trump will instead be remembered for calling out North Korea’s intolerable nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile threats to global civilization. But a decision to meet, even a North Korean promise to denuclearize, is not an agreement, implementation, verification or a factually denuclearized Peninsula. And the odds of success remain long. On the plus side, President Trump not only triggered this opening, but persuaded China to make sanctions real, which occasions a nod to both the president and China. On the minus side, the record suggests profound skepticism is warranted about North Korea’s intentions. In 1985, pressured hard by Ronald Reagan, North Korea – led by the current leader’s grandfather – signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty (NPT). Everyone was happy. The world celebrated. That triggered a running of the clock on an 18-month signing of the “safeguards agreement,” implementing the NPT. The North Koreans ignored the clock. Suddenly, they demanded South Korea drop nuclear weapons. Six years on, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all American nuclear weapons from overseas – including from South Korea – in order to induce the Soviets to do the same. At that time, North Korea finally signed the safeguards agreement. Reversal was again fast. That year, North Korea was caught and sanctioned for missile proliferation and cheating on the NPT with a rogue plutonium reprocessing plant. By early 1993, the North Koreans had firmly refused International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. But later that year, they doubled back. They allowed them in theory, if the West would pledge not ever to attack, which of course we did. But in 1994, North Korea was caught red-handed again, this time producing enough plutonium for “one or two nuclear weapons.” Funny thing, the North had done all this cheating while allowing IAEA inspections to other locations. When caught by the IAEA with the plutonium reprocessing plant, North Korea summarily quit the NPT. So much for a solid kick between the goalposts, long run, but no cigar. Like Charlie Brown to the rescue, idealist on call, former President Jimmy Carter flew over to North Korea, and magically announced he had negotiated a “freeze” on North Korea’s nuclear program. The world again celebrated. For better or worse, North Korea’s President, Kim II Sung died that year, succeeded by his son Kim Jong II, who was later be succeeded by his son, current leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong II toyed with agreements halting nuclear weapons and missile development, but suddenly demanded “compensation” from the U.S. for giving them up. President Clinton gave nothing to North Korea. A smart move. Soon enough, more cheating produced American sanctions. Without Chinese support, they failed. Over the next 20 years, the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs continued their unmitigated, undeterred and largely ignored advance. Missile launches and underground nuclear tests proliferated, beside useless negotiations. More sanctions came, but U.S. intelligence concluded by 2000 that North Korea was developing missiles that would soon be able to hit American territories in the Pacific. Promises were ritually made anew, boldly flouted, with new sanctions imposed, and nothing changed. After seven rounds of negotiations, and a steady flow of wishful diplomats and wistful proclamations, nothing led to nothing, as nothing ever does. When the North Koreans need time, they promise talk. Is talk worth having? Sure – as long as everyone understands, talk is not a substitute for action. Today things are definitely different. America’s economic and military might are locked, loaded and ready. Current sanctions are real, robust and bound to bite. China is finally helping, and America’s credibility has been boldly restored. But this is not enough, unless North Korea is serious. Frankly, the stakes are higher than most imagine, a fork in the road, resolution or submission to nuclear blackmail. We are at a Rubicon, a moment of choosing for us, but more so for North Korea’s leadership. For good to come of this, we must see a mutual intent to end the madness. The question at this moment, with true and new hope in our sails, is this: Does North Korea appreciate the enormity of this moment, which could be existential? Is the regime serious about this negotiation? President Trump set out to stop the historic merry-go-round. And it looks like, for the moment, he has done it. The North Korean invitation and President Trump’s acceptance are monumental steps, but the unspoken question remains – toward what? Can they get to genuine denuclearization and a rollback of North Korea’s decades-old ambition and threat? Or are we about to be disappointed again? If that happens, the risk to North Korea goes sky high, but does the Kim government know that? As hope is not a strategy, talk cannot be an endgame. What happens next is critical, but is infused with new hope. Suddenly, there exists a previously unknown, world-changing breakthrough. Such things do happen. If this produces a lasting peace and a denuclearized North Korea, President Trump will rise in global stature like no president since Ronald Reagan. But history suggests caution. Courage and hard work may produce the good outcome, or may not. We can dare to hope, we should dare, as the president has, but with realism.
Agreed!! And well said, Robert. Author Robert Charles is a former Naval intelligence officer, attorney, and was a former Assistant Secretary of State who worked in multiple White House administrations.