President Trump appears eager to declare that peace has come to the Korean peninsula.
The president has deluded himself that North Korea is well on its way to getting rid of its nuclear weapons. Last week, he excitedly tweeted: "North Korea recommits to denuclearization – we've come a long way."
Yet Trump looks eager to overrule his top advisers who warn of the risks of declaring peace before North Korea gets serious about eliminating its nuclear arsenal.
Instead the president may listen to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whom he will meet at the United Nations next week, as well as North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Both are urging a U.S. peace declaration by the end of the year as a first step to superseding the 1953 Korean armistice with a peace treaty.
Kim wants Trump to hold a second summit at which the peace declaration could be forthcoming.
"North Korea wants a summit with Trump in order to decouple Trump from the rest of the administration, because it sees him as an easy mark," says the Heritage Foundation's Bruce Klingner, a 20-year intelligence agency veteran who specializes in North Korea. Kim hopes that Trump will disregard the lessons learned from decades of U.S. negotiations with North Korea.
Here are four reasons why a premature peace declaration is unwise:
1. A peace declaration should not precede progress on the nuclear issue.
Pyongyang should first demonstrate willingness to give up its nuclear arsenal. Contrary to Trump's proclamations, Kim has made only puny gestures since the Singapore summit in June.
Indeed, the vague statement Trump procured from Kim in Singapore is far less concrete than past pledges North Korea has made (and broken), notably under President Bill Clinton. As the Brookings Institution's Korea expert, Jung Pak, tweeted Sept. 19: "We should recognize that 13 years ago, they agreed to far bigger concessions. … These are minuscule moves on Kim's part. …"
True, the North Korean leader has toned down the warlike rhetoric, as has Trump, which is good. And Kim has gone 10 months without testing missiles or nuclear weapons.
But North Korea has halted nuclear tests before for lengthy periods. Moreover, Kim has made clear he thinks more tests aren't needed for his intercontinental ballistic missile program.
As for Kim's pledge to dismantle a key nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, that facility has been partly dismantled and shut down on several occasions, only to be restored and restarted.
In other words, Kim is playing Trump, giving gifts that don't touch on the main issue, destroying his large nuclear arsenal. (He distracted attention by returning the remains of 55 missing Americans, which is welcome. But recall that the United States received remains of 629 Americans prior to 2005.)
2. Further concessions may help Kim keep part of his arsenal.
No expert I spoke with believes Kim intends to give up all his nuclear weapons. Rather, his goal is to slowly acquire recognition as a nuclear power.
"What we have seen so far is [only] a North Korean commitment to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula," says Klingner. "But the North Koreans have a very different definition of what that means from the U.S. definition."
While Washington seeks the elimination of all of Pyongyang's nukes, North Korea defines the phrase to mean the initial removal of U.S. troops and nuclear umbrella from South Korea – before fully addressing its nuclear program. Even then, Kim believes he needs an arsenal to ensure his survival.
"North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, the Pakistan of East Asia," says Klingner. Pakistan conducted major nuclear tests in 1998 and has managed to keep a large nuclear arsenal, despite intense U.S. and global pressure. Kim wants to do likewise, with sanctions removed and economic largesse from South Korea and elsewhere. A premature peace would help Kim achieve his goal.
3. A premature peace will undercut pressure on North Korea.
Since the Singapore summit, China and Russia are already weakening their adherence to sanctions against North Korea. Why not, since Trump said (incorrectly) in Singapore that North Korea "was no longer a nuclear threat"?
A peace declaration could spark political pressure from factions inside South Korea for withdrawal of U.S. troops and the end of the alliance with Seoul. And Kim will play on Trump's expressed desire to bring U.S. troops home soon.
But weakening the U.S.-South Korean alliance before eliminating the North's arsenal would leave South Korea at the mercy of an aggressive and unreliable Pyongyang, a nuclear-armed dictatorship that maintains vast concentration camps at home.
4. Lifting pressure on Kim could plunge Washington back into a nasty standoff with Pyongyang.
Eventually, Trump will be forced to realize that Kim has no desire to fully eliminate his nukes. At that point, the president may revert to aggressive rhetoric and threats.
Neither the United States nor North Korea is likely to start a preemptive war, but the room for dangerous mistakes would be vast, especially if Trump feels humiliated. So let's hope the president's advisers persuade him to press Kim to provide detailed data on Pyongyang's arsenal and permit international inspections — before engaging in further peace fantasies. Otherwise, a premature peace may lead to a premature end of the Kim-Trump bromance.