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The real reason Trump’s North Korea summit failed

Trump’s goal — getting rid of North Korea’s nukes — was always impossible. Time to try something new.

trump, north korea summit, kim jong un, Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The failure of President Trump’s US-North Korea summit in Singapore was inevitable.

From the get-go, the Trump administration wanted something North Korea was never going to give: the North handing over its entire nuclear arsenal before the United States gave it anything tangible. The White House was internally divided, with senior officials like National Security Adviser John Bolton publicly poisoning the well by comparing North Korea to Libya — a country the US attacked less than a decade after it voluntarily dismantled its nuclear program. Trump backing out before the meeting starts is somewhat surprising, but one way or another, this approach seemed doomed to failure.

Setting aside the Trump administration’s handling of this high-stakes diplomatic wrangling, there’s a fundamental flaw with America’s approach to North Korea that preceded Trump. That’s the fantasy that the US can somehow convince North Korea to voluntarily give up its nukes.

As long as North Korea has had a nuclear program, the US policy has been that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. Once North Korea tested its first weapon, in 2006, this goal became significantly harder to achieve — and only grew harder as time went on and the North Korean government started to plan its entire military and strategic doctrine around its large nuclear arsenal.

It comes down, very simply, to this: The United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but North Korea thinks that they are essential to its survival. That’s why experts on the Korean Peninsula agree, basically unanimously, that America’s stated goal of denuclearizing the peninsula is out of reach, that the US will only denuclearize North Korea if it pries the weapons from Kim Jong Un’s cold, dead fingers.

“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 in an interview last year.

So while Trump’s outreach to North Korea was poorly managed, the real roots of its failure precede Trump — and directly involve Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who failed to bring US policy in line with the reality that North Korea would keep its nukes.

But Obama, at least, didn’t openly risk war to end North Korea’s program. What’s particularly alarming about Trump is that, absent a negotiation process, he’s quite willing to resort to dangerous threats. In a press conference shortly after the summit cancellation on Thursday, Trump was already hinting that he’d be willing to use force against North Korea if it came to it.

“Our military, which is by far the most powerful anywhere in the world ... is ready if necessary,” the president said. “We are more ready than we have ever been before.”

The best way to lower the temperature here — to decrease the risk of nuclear war — is to give up. It’s time to admit that North Korea’s nukes are here to stay, and to plan around that reality.

Why North Korea won’t give up its nukes

North Korea’s ballistic missile ranges.
Sam Ellis/Vox

The most fundamentally important fact about North Korea’s nuclear program is that it was born out of fear — specifically, fear of the United States.

The Korean War began in 1950 when North Korea invaded the South and nearly conquered all of it. The only reason it didn’t was intervention by a US led-coalition, which in turn nearly conquered the entire North, stopped only by a Chinese counter-intervention. The war was horrifically bloody; casualties on both the North and South Korean sides exceeded 1 million.

After the war ended in an armistice in 1953, the US pledged to defend South Korea against future attack and left tens of thousands of US troops deployed there — a constant reminder to Pyongyang that the world’s strongest military power was willing to literally go to war against it.

As a result, North Korea’s entire foreign policy and national identity has evolved around the threat of war with America. As a result, they’ve always been trying to improve their military capabilities in order to deter the US from invading.

“They’re hyper-focused on our military and what we can do,” Dave Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, told me.

The nuclear program, which began in the 1950s, was designed to be the ultimate answer to this problem. The thinking among three generations of Kims was that if North Korea had nuclear weapons, it could inflict unacceptable costs on the US if it were to invade the North. Nuclear weapons, in other words, would be the ultimate deterrent against regime change.

This explains why North Korea has invested so many resources, and been willing to accept crushing international sanctions, in order to develop a nuclear bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could hit the US mainland. It also explains why North Korea almost certainly wouldn’t just give up its nukes: The entire point of its nuclear program is that it worries the US will one day try to overthrow its government, and needs something that would deter Washington from even thinking about it.

Some members of the Trump administration inflamed these fears in recent months, with Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence talking about the so-called “Libya model” for disarmament. This ended terribly for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi; eight years after giving up his nuclear program, the US intervened against him in the Libyan civil war. After the US and its allies deposed him, Qaddafi was horrifically tortured and executed afterward; you can watch footage of his killing online.

Kim worries that the same thing, more or less literally, could happen to him. Hence why the Libya comments prompted such a harsh response from the North Koreans — stating their “repugnance” for Bolton, calling Pence a “political dummy” — which Trump explicitly cited as his reason for pulling out of the talks.

But the truth is that this failure was overdetermined. The North Koreans were well aware of what happened in Libya — and to Iraq after Saddam Hussein shuttered his nuclear program — before Bolton and Pence started using the phrase.

“North Koreans always point those examples out,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me last year.

“Short of giving them South Korea and a pile of money and eliminating our nuclear weapons,” he says, “I can’t see them giving up” their nuclear weapons.

So even if Trump had made it to Singapore, the talks were never going to go where he wanted. Failure was inevitable as long as denuclearization on American terms was the sole objective.

The alternatives: accept reality, or war

Picture of North Korean soldiers Ed Jones/Getty Images

Trump’s return to talk of military force after the summit withdrawal wasn’t as scary as things were in the midst of “fire and fury” talk last year, mostly because his language wasn’t quite as aggressive. But it points to a grim truth about America’s current policy: If we’re serious about taking away North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and they won’t give them up voluntarily, the only way to do so at this point is by force.

But the reality of war with North Korea is almost too terrifying to imagine.

Experts say the North’s artillery could kill tens of thousands of civilians in Seoul, South Korea’s densely populated capital, within the first hours of a conflict. A protracted fight would lead to destruction on the Korean Peninsula on a scale unheard of since the Korean War in the 1950s, with millions of deaths on both sides.

The North’s nuclear missiles could easily reach Tokyo; most major American cities are also within their range. Imagine a nuclear strike on New York City — hundreds of thousands of Americans dead or irradiated in a catastrophe that would dwarf 9/11 by multiple orders of magnitude — and you’re starting to grasp how bad things could get.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like Trump is about to order a preemptive strike. But so long as the US keeps the threat of war on the table, and alternates between outreach and belligerence in the way Trump has, an unstable situation is made worse.

Historically, American threats tend to feed the paranoia about a US invasion that underpins the nuclear program itself. They lead the North not to abandon its nuclear program but to redouble its efforts on it, as the North Koreans believe it’s their best deterrent against such an attack. In the absolute scariest scenario, North Korea could misinterpret Trump’s rhetorical bluster as an actual sign that the US is about to attack — and strike first.

“They’re responding to our threats; it’s tit-for-tat,” Kang says. “Our policies are designed precisely to provoke the outcome we’re trying to avoid.”

The only way to significantly cut down this risk is to fundamentally reevaluate America’s North Korea policy. Instead of trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, the US could try shifting to a different policy: containment.

The term “containment” comes from Cold War diplomat George Kennan, who helped set the course of US policy toward the Soviet Union. Kennan’s approach was not to confront the Soviet Union directly, but to limit the spread of its influence abroad through alliances and military deterrence. To contain the threat rather than attempt to eliminate it entirely.

The first step toward doing that, experts say, is to actually take the threat of preventive force off the table and admit that North Korea’s nukes are a reality that the US will have to live with, at least for the foreseeable future. After that, there are several concrete actions Washington could take to reduce the threat those weapons actually pose.

During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union faced a number of situations — most notably the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — where one side had reason to believe the other was preparing for a nuclear first strike. The most important reason these crises didn’t escalate is that the US and the Soviet Union had a lot of different ways to communicate and reassure each other that they weren’t about to attack.

The most famous example is the Moscow-Washington hotline, often (inaccurately) called the red phone, a messaging system that allowed the American president and Soviet premier to communicate directly.

The US doesn’t have anything like that with North Korea right now. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visits to Pyongyang during the summit negotiations were a start, but they would need to be formalized through some kind of phone line or dedicated diplomatic channel.

The US should “focus on miscalculation and unintended escalation — almost like a hotline approach,” Kingston Reif, a scholar at the Arms Control Association, told me. “This was part of the approach during the Cold War, and absolutely needs to be part of the approach now.”

Another idea is to keep talking with North Korea about its nuclear program — but with the aim of freezing it rather than eliminating it entirely.

Reif and others think North Korea might be willing to agree to stop building more missiles and bombs, as well as testing what it already has, in exchange for some kind of trade (like limited sanctions relief). This would limit the damage North Korea’s nuclear arsenal could theoretically do, particularly by constraining its ability to strike the US mainland.

These kinds of negotiations and communication should be technically and politically feasible; the US did just set up a pretty successful inspections regime in Iran. But by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump undermined America’s credibility on this issue. Add that to the US’s reluctance to focus talks on anything other than denuclearization, and Trump has made it hard to have the kind of talks that could accomplish something.

“This is one of those areas where we should be able to have negotiation because 1) we don’t want a nuclear war, and 2) North Korea shares that interest,” Lewis says. “Abandonment of denuclearization as a near-term goal [would allow the US] to talk to them about stability, about crisis coordination.”

Third and finally, the US needs to make it crystal clear to the North Koreans that any attack on South Korea or Japan would be met with force. The best way to do this isn’t loud bluster, but rather through more concrete steps to coordinate with allies.

When the North stages provocations like missile tests, the US needs to respond with unmistakable shows of support — US warplanes overflying South Korea, for example, or promises to send over advanced military technology. In between incidents, the US should continue to stage joint military exercises — and, more importantly, send constant reassurances through diplomatic channels that the alliance commitment is still there. Such steps would help convince the North to avoid anything too provocative while simultaneously convincing allies not to respond on their own in a way that could escalate the situation.

What unites all those different policy measures is a single strategic objective: preventing war on the Korean Peninsula by managing the inherent tensions created by a nuclear North Korea. This will require some ugly compromises — most notably, negotiations and high-level contacts with what’s arguably the most evil government on earth. And there’s always a risk that it goes wrong; that deterrence fails and the US gets embroiled in a horrifying war.

But that will be true as long as Kim continues to rule. It’s better to acknowledge the reality of a nuclear North Korea and plan around it openly than to stick our head in the sand. Managing North Korea’s nuclear program may be a bad option, but much of the expert community is convinced that the alternatives are worse.

“There is no combination of sticks and carrots, sanctions and blah blah blah, that means North Korea is just going to cave and do exactly what we want them to do,” Kang told me. “We treat North Korea like it’s a problem to be solved, [but] it’s a country we have to live with.”