North Korean spymaster Kim Yong-chol came to town and a summit announcement resulted. The White House tweeted that President Donald Trump “looks forward to a second summit with Chairman Kim.” The meeting is supposed to occur before the end of February. Vietnam has been suggested as a possible location.
Cynicism about the planned summit is rife in Washington. The first meeting last June resulted in dramatic images but little denuclearization. Neoconservatives are frustrated that the president has yet to send in the bombers. Leftish critics who a year ago complained that he was about to start a war now insist that he has been played by the North’s Kim Jong-un. However, denuclearization should not be seen as the upcoming summit’s principal, if not only, objective.
Despite Trump’s apparent confidence in North Korea’s supreme leader, no one in Washington other than the president appears to believe there is much chance that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea intends to disarm. That is one reason for why Pyongyang desired another summit. If an agreement is possible, the DPRK believes, then it is through the president, not the secretary of state and certainly not the national security adviser. Last week a North Korean diplomat complained to me about the current diplomatic impasse but expressed hope that “if the summit occurs it will contribute to breaking the stalemate.”
In fact, it should surprise no one if Kim proves unwilling to yield weapons so costly to develop, as well as the capability to construct them. Nukes offer international status that much larger nations lack. The weapons also reinforce the regime’s domestic meme of protecting its people from foreign enemies, while rewarding the military for its loyalty. Most important, as my North Korean interlocutor argued, the weapons are “the last option for simple deterrence.” Well-deserved skepticism of the DPRK’s claims notwithstanding, Washington’s overwhelming conventional military strength combined with its penchant for regime change make nuclear weapons the only effective guarantee for any government on Uncle Sam’s naughty list.