President Donald Trump’s speech in the South Korean capital of Seoul on Tuesday night wasn’t the disaster that many observers feared. There was no bombastic threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury,” nor any descriptions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump even offered to negotiate with Pyongyang.
There was just one problem: The condition that he set out for negotiations with the North to even begin — that Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons before talks start — is almost certainly unattainable. There’s virtually no chance that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons under any deal, let alone as a condition of even beginning negotiations.
“There is very little chance that we are ever going to talk this guy out of his [nuclear] weapons, and none of us who have been watching the situation closely for years really thought we were going to,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a scholar at Yale Law School who studies North Korea, told me earlier this year.
The policy that Trump laid out Tuesday night is far less scary than his past rhetoric, and it’s enormously reassuring that Trump seems willing to negotiate with Kim rather than demean him while threatening actual war. The grim reality is that it may be doomed to failure all the same.
Trump’s diplomatic opening is a complete nonstarter
To be fair to Trump, the position of the past several presidents was also that North Korea’s nuclear program was unacceptable and that Pyongyang would have to give up all of its nuclear weapons. But there are two major reasons why Trump’s policy is different, and even less likely to succeed, than what came before him.
The first is that Trump is confusing the end of the negotiations with the beginning. Prior presidents recognized that the goal of talks with North Korea was to get them to put limits on their nuclear program, and that doing that would involve a serious diplomatic effort. Trump, by contrast, seems to think North Korea is so desperate for attention — or to avoid outright military conflict — that they’d give up their most powerful weapons in exchange for a mere chance to chat.
"We seek a future of light, prosperity, and peace, but we are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program,” Trump said in his address to the South Korean parliament Tuesday night.
Since North Korea obviously won’t dismantle their nuclear program before talks even begin, this is a nonstarter. It’s very possible Trump is laying out a marker that he’d be prepared to walk back from once talks begin. But it’s also possible that Trump is serious that talks won’t start unless North Korea abandons its weapons. If so, those talks won’t start.
The second big problem is that North Korea’s nuclear program is much further along than it was in the past. Pyongyang has built as many as 60 nuclear weapons, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and has developed missiles that are in theory capable of hitting the East Coast of the United States. North Korea tested its most powerful bomb yet — seven times the size of the one America dropped on Hiroshima — this September.
This growing nuclear strength has come at a time when the South Korean military has only gotten stronger relative to the North’s, and when the United States has toppled two dictators — Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi — who had once agreed to international limits on their nuclear programs. The lesson that Kim Jong Un has taken from these developments is clear: He needs to keep his nukes if he wants to deter a South Korean and American attack.
“There’s pretty broad agreement that Kim Jong Un wants a nuclear arsenal, including a nuclear-armed ICBM that could put cities and targets in the United States at risk, to deter an attack and to ensure survival and prevent regime change,” Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told me.
The good news here is that North Korea isn’t suicidal: They want their nukes to prevent an invasion, which means they almost certainly wouldn’t use them against the US unless they felt like they were at imminent risk of being attacked. The bad news is that nukes have become central to North Korea’s plan for securing itself from attack, which means that there’s basically nothing plausible the US could offer that would convince them to denuclearize.
“Short of giving them South Korea and a pile of money and eliminating our nuclear weapons … I can’t see them giving [their nuclear weapons] up,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said earlier this year.
Trump’s new softer tone is good in the sense that it’s not as likely to unintentionally spark a potentially devastating conflict. But let’s not kid ourselves: It won’t solve the North Korea nuclear standoff, and it could make talks less, not more, likely to succeed.