Major North Korean concessions. Troubling comments from a top American official about nuclear weapons. And a Nobel Peace Prize for President Trump? Taken together, it was yet another noteworthy weekend in the ongoing US-North Korea drama.
On Sunday, Kim Jong Un reportedly offered a trade: the end of his country’s nuclear program in exchange for assurances that America would never invade North Korea. He tacked on some other items, including the closure of a prominent nuclear test site and even changing North Korea’s time zone to match that of the South.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, on Sunday twice said the administration wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program just like Libya did. Kim might bristle at that, as the absence of nuclear weapons is part of the reason Libya’s former dictator Muammar Qaddafi couldn’t stop an uprising that eventually led to his brutal death.
And a debate has broken out over something that seems superficially laughable: giving Trump the Nobel Peace Prize because of how he has arguably helped set the stage for a possible end of the decades-long Korean crisis. South Korean President Moon Jae-in — who just finished a historic meeting of his own with Kim — said Trump deserved the award.
What follows is a brief guide to the past three days — and how they could impact the moment when Trump potentially sits down with Kim in late May or early June.
Can Kim be trusted?
Last year, Kim surprised nearly everyone with the relentless pace of his weapons tests. This year, he continues to shock because of his seemingly ceaseless diplomatic overtures.
According to the South Korean government, Kim told Moon during their historic summit last Friday that Pyongyang would make three important concessions. First, North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program as long as the US promised never to invade it and agreed to a formal end of the Korean War. Second, it would destroy a nuclear testing site and allow international observers — like journalists — to watch. And third, it would change its clocks to match South Korea’s time zone, which runs 30 minutes ahead.
This is all according to South Korean presidential press secretary Yoon Young-chan, who on Sunday relayed the results of the Kim-Moon chat. North Korea so far has only really confirmed its desire to change time zones on May 5 and has yet to comment on the other three concessions.
But let’s be clear: It would be a really big deal if North Korea stopped its nuclear weapons program. The problem is it’s hard to know if Kim really means what he reportedly said.
For one, the Kim regime considers its nuclear weapons to be its best safeguard against foreign invasion. It’s hard to believe Kim would give those weapons up solely because America would agree to end the Korean War, which has remained in a stalemate since 1953.
Laura Rosenberger, the National Security Council director for Korea and China during the Obama administration, argued Sunday that Washington and Pyongyang have made these kinds of statements before. After multilateral talks in 2005, for instance, America promised not to attack or invade North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” In effect, North Korea wants to return to an agreement from 13 years ago.
Not to be Debbie downer again, but - from the 2005 Joint Statement:— Laura Rosenberger (@rosenbergerlm) April 29, 2018
"The United States affirmed that it... has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons."
"The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" https://t.co/gVFzNG7fLV
There’s even more reason to doubt North Korea’s sincerity. It turns out that the specific nuclear test site Kim said he would shut down — where all of North Korea’s nuclear tests have taken place since 2006 — may already be useless. Last September, Kim tested a nuclear weapon seven times stronger than the one the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 at the site. Afterward, tunnels reportedly collapsed at the site, killing hundreds of workers and rendering it inoperable. If that’s true, Kim’s big concession to close down the site seems like nothing more than an empty gesture.
Clearly, the US and North Korea need to develop some semblance of trust with one another ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. The problem is US officials continue to make easy errors before that meeting.
Bolton wants North Korea to follow in Libya’s footsteps
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, will play a major part in shaping any deal Trump and Kim may strike in a few months — which is why his comments on the Sunday news shows are worth closely examining.
Appearing on both Fox News Sunday and CBS’s Face the Nation, Bolton said he wanted North Korea to follow Libya’s example from the early 2000s when it abandoned its nuclear program under pressure from the George W. Bush administration. In January 2004, the US transported about 55,000 pounds of documents and materials that formed part of Libya’s nuclear weapons program to America. In exchange, Libya got sanctions relief.
The sanctions-for-weapons trade could very well be the kind of deal Trump offers Kim. “We have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004,” Bolton said during his Sunday Fox appearance. “There are obviously differences. The Libyan program was much smaller, but that was basically the agreement that we made.”
But there are reasons to assume that Kim sees the Libyan example totally differently — and as something he needs to avoid.
The North Korean leader believes nuclear weapons keep his regime safe. Part of the reason he feels that way is because of what happened to Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s former dictator, in 2011. With American help, the leader was captured by anti-Qaddafi rebels, who then sodomized and killed him. Had Libya kept its nuclear weapons, it’s entirely possible the US would not have intervened during the country’s civil war and Qaddafi would not have met such an end.
Kim likely wants to avoid that outcome too, which means he’s unlikely to hand over his nuclear materials to Trump. In a sense, Bolton may have scared Kim more than reassured him ahead of the potential US-North Korea summit.
Some people think Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. No, seriously.
Yes, this is already a debate people are having.
Last Friday, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that Trump should win a Nobel Prize if peace between the Koreas breaks out: “We’re not there yet, but if this happens, President Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Trump supporters seem to agree. During a rally on Saturday in Washington, Michigan, Trump talked about his upcoming meeting with Kim. The president’s fans started chanting, “Nobel! Nobel!” in reference to the Nobel Peace Prize they think Trump should win.
There’s a case to make for that. Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” campaign to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons pursuits has had some success. After all, multiple countries have placed harsh sanctions on North Korea; more than 20 countries restricted the North’s diplomatic activities, including expelling its diplomats; and Kim has come out from the cold, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, attending a historic summit with Moon, and planning to chat with Trump.
On Monday, Moon even endorsed Trump for the honor. “It’s President Trump who should receive the Nobel Prize,” he said in response to a letter from the wife of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. That’s striking considering that Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for arranging the first-ever inter-Korean summit.
It’s too early to know if there will actually be a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, let alone who might win that award. But the seeming progress with North Korea has put Trump’s name in the conversation for one of the world’s most prestigious honors.