Signs of progress in U.S.-North Korean relations are coming in fast since U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang over the weekend to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In striking contrast with Pompeo’s last visit — soon followed by the Kim regime’s ominous complaints about “cancerous” and “gangster-like demands” — both sides reviewed the meeting well. Pompeo enthused about a “great, great visit,” and Kim declared it “a very nice day that promises a good future for both countries.”
Come Monday, Pompeo said Kim gave him a pledge to permit outside inspectors at a key nuclear development site. “As soon as we get it logistically worked out,” he reported, Kim will welcome inspectors the Punggye-ri facility, which is ostensibly dismantled. From South Korea came the news that Kim has agreed to a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump “at the earliest possible date.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed hope it will lead to “irreversible, decisive progress in terms of denuclearization as well as the peace process.”
It is a hope we all share. For all its frustrations and foibles at home and abroad, the Trump administration’s handling of North Korea this past summer and fall is an accomplishment worthy of the president’s boasts. “We’re doing great with North Korea,” he rhapsodized at a recent rally in West Virginia. “We were going to war with North Korea. That was what was going to happen,” Trump continued. “We’ve come a long way, but we could have been in something. Now, I’m not saying — what’s going to happen? Who knows.”
That caution is merited too, for it would be a serious mistake to take these signs of progress as a surety of success. This could all be reversed tomorrow. A bad tweet, a misstep from China or South Korea, some unknown political dynamic within hidden machinations of the Kim regime — any of these factors and a million more could upset the delicate climate that has permitted negotiations to flourish.
Trump and Kim alike are capricious leaders; Trump has made explicit the value he places on unpredictability, and Kim rules by unchecked personal fiat. Both are surrounded by advisers who undoubtedly have competing agendas; while Pompeo seems to be sincerely pursuing this diplomatic path, for example, there is reason to think National Security Adviser John Bolton could play the saboteur. Beyond these interpersonal considerations, the long history of conflict, distrust, and reckless language that provides an oh-so-shaky foundation for this progress could all too easily cause it to crumble.
The difficult but necessary commitment we must make now, before any such serious setbacks, is to stay the course.
However complicated and halting it may be — and, again, the present thaw cannot lure us into imagining we will never get another bite of frost — negotiations are our only prudent option. Reliably backed by ample and indeed indefinite deterrence thanks to U.S. military might, diplomacy is the only way to advance American interests here, to stave off the unspeakable prospect of nuclear war.
For Trump is right that war is a real possibility in diplomacy’s absence, and his grim estimation of its outcome is likewise correct. “Millions of people would [be] killed” in a renewed Korean War, Trump said at that rally speech. “I mean, you have Seoul, 30 million people right off the [inter-Korean] border 30 miles away.”
A Kim faced with U.S. military intervention and regime change — the very outcome his nuclear arsenal is intended to prevent — could well determine to take those millions down with him. North Korea’s “national nuclear force is… a war deterrent for putting an end to nuclear threat of the U.S. and for preventing its military invasion,” Pyonyang has stated. Initiating such an invasion is the surest route to the nuclear nightmare we seek to avoid. It may seem obvious, but it bears stating: We will not escape nuclear war by going to war against a dictator-run nuclear power. And despite what all the denuclearization rhetoric suggests, escaping that war is our primary goal — or should be. Denuclearization would be nice, but it may not prove possible. Maintaining peace via discussion and deterrence, by contrast, is an entirely achievable and vital aim.
Even in the best-case scenario (if we can bring ourselves to label any iteration of this hellish prospect “best”), exchanging diplomacy for war would mean enormous casualties and, for the post-Cold War era, unprecedented economic and political upheaval. Though the U.S. mainland would likely escape any direct strikes, we must anticipate military and certainly civilian losses exceeding those of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as economic downturn paired with costly defense spending hikes and a long-term commitment to nation building in a brainwashed prison state with a culture very different from our own.
Does this sound daunting and miserable? It should, because it would be. No one of good conscience can condone the Kim regime’s horrors, but figures of the Washington establishment who blithely advocate preventive war are naïve and irresponsible in the extreme. Trading diplomacy for war will serve no one’s interests — neither ours nor those of the oppressed North Korean people.
The recent flurry of progress may or may not last. Trump and Kim may or may not stay friendly. That promised nuclear site inspection may or may not occur. But whatever happens, and however long it takes, we must remember: Talking is still our only chance for peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.