Had this dream about how Trump earns his Nobel Peace Prize. He arranges for billions of US taxpayer dollars to be paid to the Pyongyang regime in exchange for some major concession on weapons of mass destruction – but a concession that’s necessarily short of full denuclearization.
Having done that, Trump resigns from the presidency so he won’t have to worry about the Emoluments Clause. In semi-retirement he takes up a post as real estate consultant to Kim Jong Un, focusing on North Korea’s east coast tourism industry. The two of them produce Kim-branded golf courses, hotel/condo towers and casinos swarming with Chinese and South Korean tourists.
After all, as Trump told journalists on Tuesday: “I think that North Korea has tremendous potential, and he’ll be there. I think that North Korea, under his leadership – but North Korea, because of what it represents – the people are great, the land is great, the location is incredible between Russia, China, and South Korea. I think North Korea has tremendous potential. And the one that feels that more than anybody is Kim Jong Un. He gets it. He totally gets it.”
This is just a daydream – but the thing is, in large part it’s a fashionable daydream. With hope for North Korean denuclearization fading, thinkers have been urging out-of-the box approaches that include, in basics, two of those involved in my imaginary scenario: The United States (A) accepts and adjusts to North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed state; and/or (B) gives Kim money. What we’re talking about here is putting A and B together and adding – perhaps fancifully, I concede – (C), Trump’s resignation.
Accept and adjust to North Korea as a nuclear-armed state
A year after a Singapore summit that gave Trump and a few others hope that Kim would fully denuclearize voluntarily, and four months after the failure of the two leaders’ second summit in Hanoi, analysts are looking for something – anything – that can be salvaged from the process.
“It is hard to predict what Trump will do next,” Frank Jannuzi, who was principal Asia adviser to the current Democratic presidential frontrunner back when Joe Biden was still a senator and 2008 presidential candidate, writes in a Kyodo dispatch. “The best-case outcome is that Trump resumes slow and steady outreach to Pyongyang,” he argues.
“The worst case would be an abrupt move by Trump to sign a politically opportunistic but substantively weak deal,” adds Jannuzi, who’s currently president of the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation.
Such suspicions about how disastrously low a Trump still in office might go – worries likely to be shared privately by Nobel judges – are one big reason why we can imagine that the president’s resignation would be a major plus in his campaign to win the prize.
Moving right along, let’s look at the argument we’d be better off accepting that full North Korean denuclearization isn’t going to happen and so we need to try other approaches.
“There are three common objections that focus on the nuclear non-proliferation consequences of ‘acceptance,’” writes Eric Brewer, visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security. In a blog post published under Creative Commons rules, he seeks to knock down all three.
First objection: Abandoning denuclearization would set a bad precedent and encourage others to adopt the North Korean “model” toward the bomb.
“According to this argument,” Brewer writes, “if the United States drops its insistence on North Korea’s disarmament it will prove to other countries that they can wait out US pressure. Washington – and, by extension, the international community – will eventually give up and accept their nuclear status.
“Of course, there are already other cases – India and Pakistan, for example – that arguably provide better examples to follow. But neither of these seemed to stimulate significant increases in proliferation motives among other countries. Moreover, the North Korea ‘model’ is attractive to few, if any, nuclear aspirants. Few regimes would be willing to endure the type of economic deprivation and diplomatic isolation that North Korea has lived under for decades. Not even Iran sees North Korea as a viable path.
“This argument also overweighs the degree to which countries debating their nuclear options take their cues from predecessors. There are certainly reasons why Iran, Syria, or others might seek nuclear weapons, but ‘because North Korea got away with it’ is likely lower on the list.”
Second objection: Accepting North Korea’s arsenal and its expansion makes it more likely Kim will sell nuclear weapons or materials.
“Some fear that unless North Korea’s weapons are eliminated, there will always be a risk that its leadership will sell them abroad,” Brewer writes. “A related argument holds that as North Korea’s stockpile increases it could be more willing to part with spare nuclear material, especially if it were in dire economic straits. There is good reason to worry: North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert until an Israeli strike destroyed it in 2007; the North apparently provided uranium hexafluoride to Libya in the early 2000s; and it has reportedly sold a variety of missile technologies to multiple countries, including Iran.
“But there is not a direct and linear relationship between more nuclear weapons and willingness to sell them. More nuclear weapons would not alone change Kim’s risk calculus. That calculus is more about the chances he would be caught, and the penalties he would incur. There have so far been no discernible costs imposed on the Kim regime that would signal that those brazen proliferation attempts are markedly worse than other provocations.
“The good news, again, is that few countries would seek to partner with North Korea on nuclear weapons. The destruction and exposure of the reactor in Syria also probably does not instill much confidence in would-be recipients that they could get away with it.
“Thus, the challenge is real, but bounded. The United States must continue to monitor for such transfers and consider how to make clearer the seriousness with which it would treat any nuclear or missile cooperation with North Korea. But Washington should not let this concern artificially constrain its consideration of alternative North Korea policy options.”
Third objection: Abandoning denuclearization as the goal would be unacceptable to US allies and increase the risk that South Korea and Japan would go nuclear.
“According to this argument,” Brewer writes, “by cementing North Korea’s nuclear status, allies would feel the United States has abandoned them and a shared strategic vision for regional security. Combined with the reality that the North Korean nuclear threat would now only grow, this would compel South Korea and Japan to develop their own independent nuclear deterrents.
“But caution here is warranted. For starters, the region has already ticked through the ‘milestones’ that were supposed to cause Japan and South Korea to go nuclear. These included North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, its testing of them, and its demonstration of an ICBM capability. Yet both Tokyo and Seoul remain non-nuclear. This suggests that the United States and its allies are better at adapting to changes in the security environment than they – and observers – often give themselves credit for. It also suggests that, to some degree, the North Korean nuclear threat is already baked into their threat perceptions.
“Presumably, there would also be more to a new policy than just ‘not denuclearization,’” Brewer notes. A decisive issue then would be, “What, if any steps, does the United States take to bolster deterrence of North Korea and assurance of its allies along with such a policy?”
Robert E. Kelly, professor of international relations at Pusan National University, offers his own arguments for point (A), starting with a flat prediction that “Pyongyang will not use its nuclear weapons to preemptively or offensively attack the United States.”
Kelly, writing in The National Interest, believes like Brewer that “we can learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.” That, he argues, might be better than making huge-scale concessions.
“Physical concessions are all but irretrievable and so should be seen a major give-away. If we give up US bases in South Korea, for example, in exchange for a huge chunk of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, we will likely never return. Consider how difficult it has been for the United States to get back into the Philippines after its departure in the 1980s, in order to push back on Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea. This sort of thing will happen in Korea, too, if we leave.”
Give Kim money
Then Kelly adds point (B). In place of such concessions, “there is, possibly, an alternative – money,” he writes. “North Korea is also very poor and constantly in need of dollars – if only so that its corrupt elites can party on. Maybe we can simply bribe them, as David Petraeus did in Anbar province during the Iraq war.
“Trump’s offer at Singapore of helping North Korea modernize was in this payoff vein,” Kelly notes. “But the North is very wary of the political impact of major economic reform such as foreigners owning property in North Korea and moving around the country freely; North Koreans demanding property and commercial law and courts; a gusher of outside information revealing the backwardness of the North and the ridiculousness of its personality cult; and so on.
“What the North Korean elite really wants is the money from modernization without the modernization. It wants a bribe. This is how it constantly interacts with the world – always demanding pay-offs. It had the temerity, for example, to charge the United States for the dying Otto Warmbier’s health-care costs.”
That point is well argued. I’d simply add that even though Kim Jong Un is leery of actual modernization of his system, for the domestic political reasons that Kelly details, Kim does badly want to see development of his east coast beaches. Indeed, his personal schedule suggests he is obsessed with that goal.
Thus the addition of my modest point (C) in which the US president resigns – not to supervise the spending of all that bribe money but merely to advise his pal the Kimster.
Can’t you just see Trump in Stockholm, beaming as he receives the Nobel? Take that, Obama.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author, most recently, of the North Korea-set novel Nuclear Blues, which Asia Times is currently serializing.