Here is a statement I never thought I would make: I feel bad for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The reason is obvious. Kim is a shrewd geopolitical player who has made many bold and tactically smart choices over the last few years. Cursed by geography that places a powerful China, South Korea, and Japan all at his doorstep with mighty U.S. forces in the region, Kim has set out to do what his grandfather and father did for decades: survive in a neighborhood filled with nations that would love to see the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tossed into the ash heap of history.
But for once, Kim has miscalculated, or to put it more accurately, failed to see the future. His self-proclaimed New Year’s deadline in which President Trump must, at the very least, propose important concessions — sanctions relief and a form of security guarantee — has collided with the chaos that is U.S. domestic politics. For the moment, as Trump must focus all his efforts toward acquital in a likely January trial in the Senate, Trump can’t hand out any concessions to anyone, especially North Korea. To do so now would be political folly. His enemies would spin it as a sign of weakness, desperation, or even foolishness.
This leaves Kim with a choice. Having proclaimed his “new path” if America does not come to the table with what he wants, he must do something. He could decide to test fire a long-range missile, most likely an ICBM, his so-called Christmas gift to Trump, sparking a crisis that would force Washington to respond. That guarantees a repeat of the 2017 nuclear showdown, meaning lots of angry tweets, back-and-forth insults, and threats of a potential nuclear war that could ignite a World War II-scale conflict.
This time, there is no easy off-ramp. There is no Winter Olympics in South Korea that would give the north a face-saving out. In fact, the heated rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign and an angry Trump, who could no longer claim to have tamed North Korea’s growing military might, will have no choice but to turn hostile, to show strength and act “presidential.”
And we all know what Pyongyang does under pressure: It applies pressure of its own. To make matters worse, the Summer Olympics are in Japan next year, which could prove tempting for Kim to disrupt if tensions are running high.
But I remain optimistic, as the stakes are too high to return to the dark days of “fire and fury.” There is a way to turn what could be a crisis into a historic moment. There is a better path for Kim to follow, one in which his restraint could well be rewarded. For if Kim decides to do something other than launching an ICBM or a nuclear weapons test — not violating any pledges made to the United States and President Trump personally — he could very well create the conditions for a diplomatic breakthrough.
Let’s say Kim does something that is not a nuclear weapons test or ICBM launch. I would argue Trump would then hold back angry tweets or increased sanctions. If Kim does not cross that nuclear or ICBM redline — which I have heard at least two senior White House officials call such an action by North Korea — and Trump is acquitted in the Senate, the stars can align for a deal.
My hope is that Trump, wanting to achieve something substantial he can put in front of U.S. voters before the 2020 election, will see North Korea as that opportunity. The agreement he could strike is no secret: the closure of all 300-plus buildings and nuclear production areas at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sectorial sanctions relief, most likely the lifting of coal and textile exports. America would also provide North Korea a security guarantee that it does not seek regime change, while also swapping liaison offices and signing a political declaration ending the Korean War.
Of course, some people would despise such an agreement. Many will argue such a deal does not go far enough, that North Korea should disclose and dismantle all facilities, that we should create a roadmap for full denuclearization, or that we can’t trust Pyongyang — ever.
They are wrong. We cannot begin to undo decades of mutual mistrust overnight. Maybe a few solid steps toward a goal of a peaceful regime on the Korean Peninsula can serve as a foundation for much more in the future.
But Kim must now make a bold choice to show restraint. He would then prove to the world he is indeed a different type of leader than his grandfather and father, and that peace is truly possible.