NORTH KOREA’S threat to call off the summit meeting between dictator Kim Jong Un and President Trump next month is surely a bluff, but all the same it should serve as a wake-up call for the White House. Mr. Trump already has all but awarded himself the Nobel Peace Prize as he and his aides promise to accept nothing less than the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea,” accomplished on a quick timeline. North Korea’s rhetorical tantrum was a reminder that the Kim regime will almost certainly agree to no such thing.
“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue,” Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan was quoted as saying Wednesday. He seemed particularly incensed by comments Sunday from national security adviser John Bolton, who suggested that a North Korean deal would be modeled on the one struck with Libya in 2003. That quick and unilateral disarmament arguably opened the way to the overthrow of the regime of Moammar Gaddafi nearly eight years later.
But Mr. Kim might as well have been describing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in his own remarks Sunday disparaged “the traditional model” of a deal with North Korea, “where they do something and we give them a bunch of money . . . Our ask is complete and total denuclearization.”
The U.S. rhetoric implies that the North Korean leader has decided on a stunning reversal of decades of policy and is suddenly prepared to accept full disarmament in exchange for security guarantees and economic investment. Yet nothing Pyongyang has publicly said or done supports that. On the contrary, Kim Jong Un appears to be following almost exactly the same script as his father when he struck a deal on nuclear weapons in 2005 — and then, having pocketed the short-term economic gains, proceeded to violate it.
In recent weeks, Mr. Kim has released three Americans the regime was holding as de facto hostages and made a show of dismantling a nuclear test site. Both are practiced maneuvers. A decade ago, Kim Jong Il, father of the current ruler, invited reporters to watch the destruction of a cooling tower at a reactor site where plutonium was produced — only to restore the facilities a few months later. Threats to walk out of talks, or the abrupt cancellation of meetings, also are part of North Korea’s standard playbook.
While we can’t rule out a Damascene conversion, most likely Mr. Kim envisages negotiating a multi-stage peace process in which full disarmament is a long-term goal and North Korea is rewarded for each incremental step — in other words, something like the 2005 and 1994 deals that Mr. Pompeo dismissed. Because South Korea and China appear supportive of such a framework, Mr. Trump will risk isolating the United States if he rejects it — with the likely consequence of undermining the multilateral “maximum pressure” that he believes brought Mr. Kim to the table.
Consequently, the administration ought to be contemplating what sort of partial or phased deal with North Korea it would accept. If Mr. Kim can be induced to make his testing freeze permanent and stop any deployment or export of nuclear weapons, for example, that would be far preferable to the status quo. The question is, can Mr. Trump accept half a loaf, at least in the short term? If not, he is likely to come away with nothing.