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The Case for Cautious Optimism About the Trump-Kim Summit

North Korea won't denuclearize, but the chances of a massively lethal calamity will drop.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When President Donald Trump unveiled what he considered a big diplomatic triumph—an impending meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—the public reaction was less than celebratory. One reason, no doubt, was concern about how Trump would interpret the development: If he believes that his reckless bellicosity is what brought North Korea to the table, this could bring more reckless bellicosity from him.

This concern may account for the popularity of three tweets from arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis that, within hours of Trump’s announcement, had gotten a combined 12,000 retweets and more than 23,000 likes:

Lest Lewis end on an entirely negative note, he added this afterthought:

It’s fitting that this last tweet got more retweets (14,000) and likes (31,000) than the three others combined, because it resonates with the mindset of many in the arms control community: ambivalent, at best, about Trump being able to claim some great triumph, but recognizing the value of dialogue and hoping it reduces the chances of war, especially nuclear war.

But how hopeful can we really be, given that Lewis’s view is the consensus view—that North Korea is very unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons in the near future and pretty unlikely to give them up in the distant future? I’d say we can be guardedly hopeful—not hopeful that North Korea will denuclearize, but hopeful that the chances of a massively lethal calamity will drop.

First, it’s important to understand some powerful reasons Kim is unlikely to surrender his nuclear arms:

  • Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for the withdrawal of U.S. sanctions, and, some years after thanking him, the U.S. bombed Libya and supported a regime-change operation that led to his death.
  • Saddam Hussein, having abandoned his nuclear weapons program, acceded to U.S. demands that United Nations inspectors enter the country to verify this fact, but the U.S. ordered the inspectors out of the country and launched an invasion of Iraq that led to his death.
  • The U.S. reached a deal three years ago that rolled back Iran’s nuclear research program and intensified international monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities, and now Trump says he plans to renege on the deal and tear up the agreement—indeed, he has already started undermining the deal. And there are rumblings about military conflict with Iran.

If Gaddafi and Hussein had possessed a nuclear deterrent, they’d probably be alive; countries with nukes tend not to get bombed or invaded. And Iranian leaders may have cause any day now to wish they had a nuclear deterrent. In short, Kim would have to be crazy to de-nuclearize anytime soon.

Which brings us to the good news: Kim Jong Un isn’t crazy.

Remember: Russia and China have long had the power to, respectively, destroy and decimate America. One among several reasons they haven’t done so is that their leaders aren’t crazy; they would prefer not to die in a retaliatory nationwide immolation. Well, there’s never been any good evidence that Kim is any less rational or self-interested than leaders of Russia and China (notwithstanding the occasional hysterical headline).

Even Kim’s seemingly reckless behavior—testing nukes and ballistic missiles after Trump (recklessly) warns of grave consequences—isn’t all that reckless. Kim knows that America knows that any sustained attack on North Korea would produce, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dead South Koreans and U.S. soldiers—not via nuclear assault, but via conventional artillery barrage. He has very good reason to think Trump is bluffing.

And, there’s more evidence of Kim’s rationality. All those “reckless” missile and nuke tests have gotten him what he wants: recognition of his stature in the form of a summit with a U.S. president.

So, though a world without nukes would be nice, we don’t really need North Korea to denuclearize in order to keep the chances of nuclear war roughly where they’ve been for decades. Deterrence can work with North Korea, as it has worked with China and Russia.

What we do need is to reduce the chances of some grave misperception, such as Kim’s mistakenly thinking the U.S. has launched an attack and reacting accordingly. And so long as Trump is president, we need to reduce the chances of the U.S. actually launching an attack. (Yes, Trump on any given day is probably bluffing. Still…)

In principle, progress on this front is doable. Just normalizing relations with North Korea, and opening up channels of communication, should reduce the chances of a grave misperception by Kim and an attack by Trump. (Normalization could mean, among other things, formally ending the Korean War, which technically was put on hold by the 1953 armistice agreement.) Easing sanctions would also help, since commerce between countries makes them less likely to attack each other, both by making them more interdependent and by encouraging fine-grained communication. And, of course, having fewer starving North Koreans would be a nice bonus.

Presumably the easing of sanctions would come in exchange for something—like a moratorium on missile tests and/or nuclear tests. But the fact is that the easing would, in and of itself, be good for all concerned. That’s the way non-zero-sum games, such as commerce and avoiding nuclear war, work; outcomes can be win-win. It isn’t the case that everything we “give” to North Korea is a loss for us.

There’s one other benefit to lifting the sanctions, and it’s pretty big. Arguably, the greatest nuclear threat North Korea poses to the world has nothing to do with missiles. It has to do with the prospect that a North Korean leader, desperate to feed his impoverished people (or face their wrath), would start selling nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. So the less desperate the North Korean leader, the better off we all are.

This article is adapted from the Mindful Resistance newsletter.