Thomas Gallatin / Jun. 12, 2018

Trump's Real NoKo Strategy

His goal is to bring about a denuclearized North Korea. Everything else is secondary.

As any good coach will tell you, never take your eye off the ball. In the world of geopolitics, the same advice holds true: Define the goal, focus on reaching it and avoid rabbit trails. For President Donald Trump, his stated goal for North Korea is to see its regional and global nuclear threat ended via denuclearization. Everything else, such as an official end to the Korean War, is secondary. In the light of this clear goal, the historic Trump-Kim summit was a successful first step in the right direction.

The groundwork for future developments in North Korean denuclearization was laid, but it’s also important to note that there’s still a long way to go. On Tuesday, in Singapore, Trump and Kim Jong-un signed an agreement that essentially lays out four goals both agreed to pursue going forward:

  1. The United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

As with any negotiation, both sides conceded and received something out of this initial meeting. Obviously, Kim received a huge boost to his public image and perception on the world scene as a legitimate leader worthy of time with the American president. Yet, as many have noted, Kim is a brutal dictator, and all the positive optics at the summit featuring his meeting with Trump are unpleasant to say the least. However, if offering positive rhetoric and prestige motivates Kim to give up his nukes, then it is well worth it. (Whether it was worth it to cease military exercises with South Korea, as the North demanded and Trump granted, is up for debate.) For Kim, it is much more than presenting a good image; he’s desperate to hold on to power, and with his country on the brink of starvation, giving up his nukes and making nice with the U.S. may be his only option. His life quite literally could be on the line, depending on how this all goes down.

For Trump, this is also a golden opportunity to do what no U.S. president has been able to accomplish in over 60 years — bring about an end to the long-running regional and global threat of North Korean militaristic aggression. Again, however, the concession is allowing Kim to retain his totalitarian rule. In fact, a deal further establishes that rule, so long as Kim continues to abide by his commitment to denuclearize. Such is the messy game of diplomacy, albeit without the $150 billion Barack Obama gave Iran to make his deal.

Finally, as noted earlier, this process is far from over, and there are bound to be some setbacks. But always keep in mind the endgame — a denuclearized North Korea. The big question is verifying that denuclearization. And don’t forget the biggest behind-the-scenes player in this whole drama is China. You can bet Trump hasn’t forgotten it.

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