Should President Trump meet personally with Kim Jong-un? John Glover, a graduate student at George Mason University wrote an article advocating such a meeting and, frankly, I think that he’s on to something.
The frequent crisis situations that North Korea instigates with the West are exacerbated by the fact that the leaders have never talked. Unlike Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong during the Cold War, no North Korean leader has ever met a U.S. president and the lack of face-to-face dialogue probably exacerbates the tensions exponentially. I do not think that the current crisis will result in war, but as North Korea increases its missile and nuclear capability exponentially, the chance of a miscalculation becomes greater and greater.
Over the years I have played the North Korean tactical commander in a number of war games. In getting into role, I’ve had to study what we know of North Korean doctrine, strategy and psychology. I have often tried to conceive of what would drive Pyongyang to start what would be a suicidal war.
No matter how well our army did in the initial stages, it was obvious to me that we would lose; either the regime would be destroyed or we’d get nuked, or both. The best I could figure is that they believed that they had a truly existential threat from the outside, or they had such internal turmoil that a war was a desperate attempt to focus dissent away from the leadership cadre.
In all the years since I began as a red teamer, war has been avoided in the real world, presumably since neither of those conditions have reached critical mass. A Trump-Kim meeting could go a long way toward ensuring that a conflict doesn’t come to pass.
Richard Nixon could not have broken the ice with China had he not been such a hard-line Cold Warrior. Any Democratic president who tried it would have been labeled “soft on communism.” Mr. Trump drew a red line in Syria and backed it up with action when the Syrians stepped across. Mr. Trump has drawn another line with the North Koreans and it seems to have gotten Mr. Kim’s attention.
Since the Cold War began, we have never gone to war with a Communist-led nation with which we have had diplomatic relations. We never got to be buddies with the Soviets, but we were able to avoid war while not appearing weak in their eyes. We fought Red China in Korea at a time when we did not formally recognize its existence, and the same happened with North Vietnam.
Mr. Trump never made any ideological claims to the overthrow of the Kim dynasty during the election and probably would not have paid much attention to it until North Korea got serious about putting nuclear warheads on ICBMs and threatening Guam. No American president can ignore such provocations.
A Trump-Kim meeting would play to what Mr. Trump considers his greatest skill, that being person-to-person negotiations. Since he never considered unprovoked regime change in Pyongyang, Mr. Trump would not be giving anything up in assuring Mr. Kim that we will not undertake such an action unless we or our South Korean or Japanese allies is attacked.
As the secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said, the military option is always on the table. The Cold War between North Korea and the West would not end with such a meeting, but it might well de-escalate the current crisis and open the road for further dialogue. Winston Churchill was fond of saying; “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”
Mr. Glover suggests that Mr. Trump invite the North Korean leader to Washington, but that is probably not workable. If the pressure to ratchet up tensions is being driven by internal politics in the North, Mr. Kim cannot afford to be seen as going into the camp of the enemy. However, a meeting at the 38th parallel in Korea or in Beijing would be more feasible and would give Mr. Kim the world recognition he obviously craves. A successful meeting would probably be one that doesn’t end in a shouting match, but it would also vastly increase Mr. Trump’s street cred in the foreign policy realm.
Hard-liners who do favor military action against the North, or Iraqi-like regime change would not be happy, and the left as well as many mainstream Republicans will hate Mr. Trump no matter what he does. If I were to give the president face-to-face advice on this matter, I’d paraphrase his own words. “What the Hell have you got to lose?”
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who teaches alternative analysis (red teaming) at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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