Trump is winning and heads are spinning as North Korea talks get off to a running start

There seems to be an assumption — not in the least downplayed by President Trump himself — that denuclearization of North Korea is practically already in the bag, that the meeting with Kim will be merely a formal prelude to him handing over all of his nukes and missiles.

From Business Day:

President Donald Trump has emerged from a year on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea with a prospective, unprecedented meeting with its leader Kim Jong Un on the books, renewed hopes of peace, and Nobel Peace Prize buzz.

Put bluntly, the reversal in North Korea’s attitude towards the US represents one of the most stunning turns in politics since Trump scored a tremendous upset to win the 2016 presidential election.

So far, North Korea has repeatedly promised it will denuclearize, and has invited the US and South Korea to observe part of that promise. North Korea hasn’t asked for the US to do anything in exchange besides agree not to invade them.

When a Trump administration official called for US detainees in North Korea to be released as a sign of Pyongyang’s sincerity, days later reports emerged that Kim had allowed just that.

All of these developments are so far only talk and plans. But they represent big wins for Trump’s stated aims: peace and denuclearization.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has credited Trump with creating the atmosphere necessary for an inter-Korean summit. North Korea expert John Delury wrote at 38 North that this has “put diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula off to a very good start.”

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President Moon has even called for Trump to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing peace to the Koreas.

However, Jeffrey Lewis — “the go-to expert on North Korea for CNN, The New York Times, and often Business Insider” — is not that optimistic.

He recently wrote a piece in Foreign Policy titled “Optimism About Korea Will Kill Us All” in which he “argues that expectations have been set too high for the Trump-Kim summit, and could eventually lead to disappointment, and then a war in which we all die.”

From Foreign Policy:

Kim is working toward winning a de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power in exchange for his agreement to respect certain limits — an end to certain missile tests and nuclear explosions, an agreement not to export nuclear technology to other states, and perhaps a pledge by North Korea not to use nuclear weapons. To accept this would represent a complete and total retreat from decades of U.S. policy — a retreat that I believe is overdue and the inevitable consequence of North Korea’s development of ICBMs and thermonuclear weapons. We have to learn to accept North Korea as it is. And what North Korea is, is nuclear-armed.

But because it represents a retreat, we’re not acknowledging it honestly. If Trump were to say this clearly, then I would support the old racist windbag in this pursuit. But instead, Trump and others are presenting this process as a route that leads to North Korea’s disarmament — even though Kim has said nothing that deviates from statements that every North Korean leader has made. And in our collective self-delusion, we have a surprising cheerleader: national security advisor John Bolton.

It is worth asking why Bolton is busy giving interviews in which he raises hopes for a complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons that can occur in a matter of months. He has repeatedly called for a “Libya style” deal — one in which the United States simply shows up and collects the weapons and supporting infrastructure. And South Korean officials are also saying that Trump won’t meet with Kim without “a specific timeline for complete denuclearization: as soon as possible and no later than the end of Mr. Trump’s current term, in early 2021.”

This is madness. There is no reason to think that Kim has any intention of agreeing to such a thing. (Starting with the fact that he has never offered to part with North Korea’s “powerful treasured sword,” as it calls its nuclear arsenal.) And there is no reason to think that Bolton, given all the things he has written and said over the years about North Korea, believes it either. Bolton isn’t suddenly naive. He’s working an angle. And that angle is almost certainly misaligning the president’s expectations. Bolton won’t try to kill diplomacy by opposing it. Rather he’ll kill it by making the perfect the enemy of the good. By raising the prospects of a Libya-style surrender, the much more modest settlement offered by Kim looks sad by comparison.

This is a very cynical — and dangerous — game that Bolton and others are playing. Because what happens once it becomes clear that Kim is not abandoning his nuclear weapons? What does Trump do? Given his personality, what’s most likely is that he’ll lash out, blaming his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for his role in setting up the fiasco — and turning the keys over to Bolton. Trump has already hinted at that. At a rally the other day, Trump spoke glowingly about his own efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons, before turning dark. “And if I can’t do it,” Trump warned, “it will be a very tough time for a lot of countries and a lot of people.”

That is a mild description for a situation that would expose millions of Koreans, Japanese, and Americans to a heightened risk of nuclear war. If diplomacy fails, it will be a tough time for everyone — everyone except Bolton.

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