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North Korean Preferences

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Over at Politico, Van Jackson provides a fascinating discussion of the possible underlying preferences that drive Kim Jung Un’s recent overtures. Jackson argues that

Kim has more concrete goals that are evident in North Korea’s word and deed, and that happen to also propel North Korea toward the meta-goal of unification, but on terms favorable to the North. Kim has sought to 1) secure his rule against internal challengers, 2) achieve and demonstrate a reliable nuclear deterrent, 3) improve his people’s quality of life, and 4) elevate North Korea’s international standing as a nuclear state. Until very recently, his priority has been the first two goals. Having made significant progress on them, with his current charm offensive, Kim is now aiming to do the same for the latter two.

I really encourage you to click through and read the whole piece. The kicker, according to Jackson, is that:

Taking Trump at his word during the campaign—when he decried U.S. allies Japan and South Korea as ungrateful free-riders—it would be reasonable to conclude that Trump is willing to forsake U.S. allies in the region by getting Kim to agree to negotiate away his ICBMs but ultimately leave Kim with a regional nuclear strike capability. Nuclear scholars have worried that a North Korean ICBM capability would “decouple” the United States from South Korea—the question of whether America would trade Seattle for Seoul in a nuclear conflict is a rhetorical one. We know the answer. The irony of a nuclear deal between Kim and Trump may actually be that true decoupling will happen when North Korea retains only the ability to strike U.S. allies but not the United States. Kim can simultaneously give a nod in the direction of denuclearization, remove the imminent threat to the U.S. homeland posed by his ICBMs, and expand a wedge between the United States and its allies.

The point is that Kim’s diplomacy is a progression of Kim’s strategy. Claiming that it’s the result of South Korea’s negotiating savvy or Trump’s maximum pressure campaign ensures only that Trump shows up to meet Kim with eyes wide shut about his counterpart’s motivations. Trump might be perfectly happy to ignore the ultimate price and trade-offs of a deal as long as it generates favorable news headlines. But what about the rest of America?

It’s easy to get drawn into arguments about whether current developments mean that Trump’s bluster toward North Korea “worked.” Jackson, along with Robert Kelley, thinks that answer is largely “no.” A major virtue of Jackson’s piece is that he does not get bogged down in this debate, but instead focuses on the opportunities and risks created by the convergence of Trump’s actions and preferences, Kim’s policy goals, and, to a lesser extent, those of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

While Trump may wind up getting the United States a better outcome than that of the status quo, the problem of analytic normalization matters here. For example, when Moon says that Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, it’s pretty clear that he’s playing to Trump’s vanity in order to push Trump toward backing Moon’s own “sunshine” policy and away from a military option.

The degree that Trump is vulnerable to manipulation by foreign leaders is actually quite alarming. We saw this yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference, which aimed squarely at convincing Trump to fully abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The bulk of Netanyahu’s “reveal” merely confirmed that Iran lied about having an active nuclear-weapons program, and thus, ironically, strengthened the case for the JCPOA. Trump’s immediate response was to declare that it proved him “100 percent right” about Iran.

The irony here should be lost on no one.

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