President Trump is right to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Based on its development track, North Korea is likely 3 to 6 months away from attaining a credible, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, capability. That means the president has little time and few good options to resolve this crisis diplomatically. Yet with Kim now signaling his openness to a grand compromise, Trump cannot risk missing this opportunity solely for the concern of perception.
There are other risks here, of course.
Most notably, Kim is very probably lying about his amenability to giving up his ICBM and nuclear programs. After all, the sanctions regime imposed on North Korea is far from the “maximum pressure” that the Trump administration claims, and Kim has spent tens of billions on that which he believes would secure his regime’s survival: a strategic nuclear force. At the same time, under Chinese pushing, South Korea has embraced an overt appeasement policy toward Pyongyang.
These realities make it unlikely that Kim has now suddenly had a change of heart.
There’s also the risk of Trump being manipulated here. As strategic analyst Tom Nichols warns, “Kim will play the gracious host, and agree to everything, knowing that this kind of flattery will trigger a torrent of praise from Trump and perhaps even elicit reckless talk about lifting sanctions.”
It’s also possible to see Trump sacrificing U.S. moral leadership to woo Kim. I can imagine, for example, Trump responding to a journalist’s question on the plight of North Korean political prisoners by looking at Kim and saying, “I don’t judge you, leaders need to be strong. This guy is a tough leader.”
Still, Trump cannot squander this opportunity for peace.
It would be an extreme gamble to launch limited military strikes on North Korea in the belief that Kim wouldn’t escalate in retaliation. Indeed, a new war on the Korean peninsula would likely cost the lives of tens of thousands of South Korean civilians, thousands of Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. If the conflict went nuclear, millions might die.
In turn, Trump must try to earn Kim’s trust and form common ground toward a grand compromise. The key ingredient here is that Trump be deliberate and time-sensitive in his negotiating strategy.
As I explained earlier this week, the president should focus on rapidly assessing Kim’s seriousness. The first step would be for Trump to attempt to get International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors with snap-inspection authority onto North Korean soil within one week of the two leaders first meeting. Those inspectors can then report back within two weeks as to the level of cooperation they have received and thus indicate to the White House (within a total of one month) whether Kim is serious or playing for time.
If Kim refuses to give inspectors access — or more likely, obstructs them — the U.S. should call off talks, immediately sanction all banks and financial organizations facilitating Kim’s capital flows, introduce a naval blockade around North Korea and prepare to use military force.
If Kim is being serious, however, we can move towards a longer-term arrangement that sees North Korea’s ICBM program removed and its threat to the U.S. homeland greatly reduced.