Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Kim and Trump
La Stampa - March 9, 2018

What, every Asian and anyone else concerned about world peace is asking, can we expect when North Korea’s “Little Rocket Man” meets America’s “Dotard” by the end of May? The sudden announcement of the first ever meeting between the heads of state of North Korea and the United States is quite a shock. Both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump like being unpredictable. Yet the likeliest answer is, nevertheless, that the meeting will bring precisely nothing.

Last year, the Pacific air was full of inter-continental ballistic missiles being tested, of nuclear capabilities being boasted of, and of threats to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury”. That after such exchanges of insults and threats the two leaders now plan to meet cannot be considered a bad thing. But to expect much to come of it would be foolish.

To see why, you just have to examine the logic of each side’s interests and actions. North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons programme now for three decades. It has withstood sanctions and even famines during that time. Plenty of talks have been held, with South Korea bilaterally and between the “six parties” interested in North-East Asian security (China, the US, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas). No progress has been made towards the objectives set by the US and North Korea respectively: dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programme; and a clear and credible “security guarantee” from the US for the North.

The question is this: now that Kim Jong Un has built the best security guarantee that any country has so far achieved, namely the possession of useable nuclear weapons, why should he trade it for a security guarantee that depends on some sort of promise by a president he knows is a serial liar and a country that anyway changes leaders and policies on a regular basis?

Money, some would say. Past members of the Kim dynasty traded fake suspensions of the nuclear programme for various sorts of bribe. But Trump will not be able to agree to any bribes, even in the form of relaxed sanctions, without very intrusive verification of denuclearisation.

Moreover, there is no real evidence that the North Korean regime is suffering especially badly from sanctions or economic difficulties, by comparison with the famines of the 1990s. The regime has found a lot of ingenious ways to raise money, through activities such as cyber-hacking, counterfeiting and smuggling.

Compared with his nuclear deterrent, the sort of security guarantee Kim Jong Un is likely to demand from Donald Trump would have to be such a dramatic change of military posture and strategic stance as to be impossible. For starters, he will surely demand that under any guarantee, the US should withdraw all its military forces from South Korea. If he feels bold, he will demand they be withdrawn from bases in Japan too, since an attack on North Korea could easily be managed from Okinawa or the Japanese mainland.

The only way in which the promises or demands of either side could be made credible would be to hand a major role on the Korean Peninsula to China as some sort of mutual guarantor of peace. But neither side is likely to relish such a prospect. North Korea has been ruthlessly purging all pro-Chinese elements in its ruling class. The United States, under Trump as with previous presidents, sees China as a strategic competitor. So it is hardly likely to hand regional leadership over to such a country.

Clues may emerge about the true position of Kim Jong Un when he holds a summit with South Korea’s President Moon Jae In at the end of this month, in the demilitarised zone that has separated the two Koreas ever since the ceasefire in the Korean War in 1953. In fact, the result of that summit might mean the postponement or cancellation of the Trump-Kim summit.

But if the Trump-Kim summit really does go ahead, we need to be realistic about what outcome to expect. Rather than denuclearisation or US withdrawal, the only truly credible positive outcome would be some form of containment: some agreed code of conduct for North Korea’s nuclear missile force, some de-escalation of US military manoeuvres in the region, and a framework of mutual deterrence similar to those negotiated between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  

Then, North Korea will have got what it really wants: a status equivalent to that of the Soviet Union, and a kind of normalisation of its military capabilities. President Trump needs to understand that this will be his counterpart’s true bottom line. That, after all, is the “Art of the Deal”, in the title of Trump’s own famous book.


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