WONJU, South Korea — Boy, does Donald J. Trump have a deal for Kim Jong Un! We’ll make you president for life if you stop annoying us with your nukes.
That was the unmistakable message from Trump as he sought to calm Kim down after North Korean threats to pull out of the projected summit in Singapore on June 12. In the process, Trump may well have shown the world precisely what he’s been willing to promise the young dictator he was calling “little rocket man” only last year.
Trump’s remarks on Thursday seemed to imply that he’s not only ready to quit threatening Kim and help make him rich, but might sign a treaty that goes beyond peace to assure in some respect Kim’s defense. Part of the bigger picture would be to wean North Korea away from its dependence on China.
Is this just Trump’s desperation for a landmark summit? Is it delusional about Beijing? Or is it Trump being Trump, tossing out ideas? One can’t be sure, and on one key point—the issue that had gotten Kim riled up earlier in the week, threatening the summit—Trump appeared rather ill-informed.
North Korea had reacted publicly and specifically to remarks on a Sunday talk show by National Security Adviser John Bolton suggesting that the model for Kim’s denuclearization would be Libya in 2003. Bolton was talking specifically about the modalities, and suggesting Kim would reap no benefits until the process of eliminating the nukes was complete.
Trump did not seem to know much if anything about why or how the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program (much of it never got out of the crates, and he never had a nuclear weapon), but Trump did know Gaddafi wound up tortured and killed in the bloody NATO-backed revolt against his long dictatorship in 2011.
And Trump knew that Kim really, really didn’t like that analogy. The official statement from North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs this week minced no words: “It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], a nuclear weapons state, to Libya which had been at the initial stage of nuclear development.” As for Bolton, “We do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.” And North Korea is not about to share “the destiny of Libya or Iraq,” where nuke-less dictators wound up dethroned and dead.
“That [dead dictator] model will take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Trump remarked to reporters at the White House. On the other hand, Trump said, “If we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un will be very, very happy.”
“We never said to Gaddafi, ‘We’re going to give you military strength,’” Trump told reporters, implying that Kim, unlike Gaddafi, would have guarantees that no hitherto anti-American dictator could imagine.
The inference was plain. No way would the U.S. support an attack on Kim’s regime if he cooperated on a nuclear deal, and Washington, Trump implied but did not quite say, might support Kim against all his enemies, domestic or foreign.
No, Trump did not mention China’s stake in North Korea, but others lauding Trump’s initiative have suggested Kim could escape from Chinese domination by moving toward the U.S. in whatever agreement might be reached in Singapore.
“For the past 10 years, we said North Korea’s problem is China’s problem,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the influential Sejong Institute. “That status quo has changed because of Trump. The game surrounding North Korea is changing.”
“Now the U.S. is at the forefront to deal in this game,” said Lee at a forum on prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula at Yonsei University’s campus here. “China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula is decreasing.”
The betting, in fact, is that Kim will go through with the summit with Trump not only to get out from under sanctions but also to escape domination by China, currently the source of almost all North Korea’s oil and half its food.
“I would expect serious concessions [by Kim],” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar now at Seoul’s Kookmin University who lived for several years in North Korea in the 1980s and recently revisited Pyongyang for two weeks. “Maybe they will dismantle some of their facilities, some of their nuclear devices, some of their ICBMs”—the intercontinental ballistics missiles that Kim says, with some credibility, could deliver a warhead as far as New York or Washington.
Moon Chung-in, a well-known academic figure who now is a senior adviser to South Korea President Moon Jae-in, agreed—and disagreed.
“What is important is North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons,” he said at the forum. “North Korea wants to be normal, but we treat it as a demon.” As for Kim’s grip on power, said Moon Chung-in, “Regime security is something he should handle.”
Trump left no doubt, however, that Kim would be infinitely safer if he yielded to demands for CVID—complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of his nukes. “He’d be in his country, he’d be running his country, his country would be very rich.”
If there were any real model for Kim to emulate, Trump suggested, it might be South Korea “in terms of their industry. In terms of what they do, they’re hardworking, incredible people.” No doubt about it, “The best thing he could ever do is make a deal.”
But what about China? Could China’s President Xi Jinping have been telling Kim to keep his distance from the Americans when they met earlier this month? “Perhaps they spoke to China,” said Trump, hinting at skulduggery from Xi.
Lee Seong-hyon saw China as a negative factor. “China wants to disrupt the peace process,” he said. “That’s why the U.S. wants to keep China on the leash.”