war on the rocks

Entry 67: Something’s Not Right

March 16, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 67th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

As you’ll recall from my Nuke Your Darlings entry a few days ago, I’ve felt something is off about the supposed offer from Kim Jong Un to agree to denuclearize as part of a meeting with Donald Trump.

My skepticism is growing greater by the day. It’s consumed me to the point that it’s all I thought about today when I wasn’t prepping for or delivering a three-hour lecture in the afternoon. Here’s why.

Why would Kim want a meeting with Trump?

The smart money is on the symbolic power. As I told the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield recently, “This is what his father and grandfather wanted: to be on the same footing as the world’s greatest power.” Almost every serious analyst believes this is the main driver for Kim to want to meet with Trump.

But what about alternative explanations? The most compelling alternative is a desire for sanctions relief, but it’s no good as an explanation. The current sanctions regime is slowly strangulating North Korea, true. But North Korea’s always wanted sanctions relief, and it’s never been an impetus for it to seek a meeting with the U.S. president. Such a meeting would be neither necessary nor sufficient for relief of international and congressionally imposed sanctions. The North Koreans know this. So while Kim would surely use a meeting with Trump to seek sanctions relief, that can’t be the only—or even main—explanation.

Any other explanations? None that are compelling, and none that have gotten any traction in public discourse. We’ve long expected that North Korea would return to diplomacy after it achieved a secure second-strike capability—which would explain the timing—but diplomacy need not take the form of a meeting with Trump. That means Kim’s motive is primarily symbolism.

Why would North Korean media be silent about a pending Trump-Kim meeting?

There are three possibilities here. 1) Kim might face challenges from others who judge him as weak. 2) The idea of America as enemy is so deeply engrained in the public consciousness that North Korean media can’t just reverse that narrative overnight. 3) There’s no date, venue, or agenda for a meeting, so Kim doesn’t want it announced until the deets are locked down.

The first and second answers directly contradict Kim’s motivation for seeking a meeting in the first place—it’s the symbolism, stupid! That’s the incentive for the meeting. But you can’t cash out on symbolism without public narratives. You don’t get benefits from something symbolically valuable if the symbol either makes enemies want to kill you (the first answer) or undermines the narrative that keeps you in power (the second answer). If symbolic capital is why Kim wants a meeting, then media silence makes no sense.

The third possibility is the only one that seems plausible to me, but even that doesn’t make sense when you consider other evidence. Specifically, North Korean state media have been running continuous stories whose content is as hostile, anti-Trump, and anti-American as ever. If they were gearing up for a meeting where Kim is supposedly going to turn over the keys to his nukes, they wouldn’t do that.

Why is South Korea’s oral report the only source confirming both Kim’s request to meet with Trump and Kim’s offer to denuclearize?

There are also three possibilities here. 1) South Korea misinterpreted what Kim said. 2) South Korea invented what Kim said. 3) South Korea got right what Kim said but Kim didn’t want to put it in writing.

Think about that. To put it bluntly, South Korea’s wrong, South Korea’s lying/stretching reality, or Kim wants to entice Trump to a meeting where he in fact won’t agree to denuclearization. All three possibilities mean diplomacy has lost before it’s started. All three represent situations where Trump enters a meeting under false pretenses, which undermines any deal to be had.

Something’s Rotten in Denmark

Do you see now why something is definitely fishy? Forget for a moment whether you see a Trump-Kim summit as an opportunity or a calamity. When you work through these three anomalies—Kim’s motivation for a meeting, North Korean media silence about a meeting, and the lack of evidence that Kim requested a meeting to talk denuclearization—the answers don’t add up. Unless the White House has information it’s not sharing with the public, there’s no deal to be had here because of the auspices under which Trump agreed to this “meeting.”

I wrote 730 words today despite puzzling my way through this problem. Writing this has helped me impose logic on my intuition. My reasoning isn’t infallible so let me know if you think I’ve missed something!

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.