Of the many mortifying moments of Donald Trump’s presidency, few can match his hopeless infatuation with an unlikely partner: North Korean Communist dictator Kim Jong Un. It is still hard to believe that the leader of the free world could stand up in public and tell an audience: “We fell in love. No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters … We fell in love.”
President Joe Biden is meeting Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Topic 1, as usual, will be that belligerent nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang. Biden’s approach to North Korea looks and sounds much different from Trump’s. But his results are likely to be more or less identical.
Trump thought he was much shrewder than his predecessors in defusing this nuclear threat. “Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed,” he tweeted in 2017. “I won’t fail.”
First, he warned that if the North Koreans threatened the United States, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” He tweeted, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his.”
Then, as often happens in romantic tales, two people who start out disliking each other soon went head over heels. In 2018, Kim invited Trump to meet with him, and Trump surprised everyone by accepting. After the first meeting ever between a U.S. president and a North Korean head of state, Trump exulted. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” which was a charming fantasy.
The two leaders met twice more, amid similarly extravagant claims. Trump’s supposed goal was “the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” But by the time he left office, it was obvious that he had naively granted North Korea more time to do what it had been doing all along: building up its nuclear and missile capacities.
Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, had carried out two nuclear tests and 16 missile tests. The son ramped up, conducting four nuclear tests and 91 ballistic missile tests. Experts say North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear weapons and produces enough fissile material to add another dozen each year. Nothing Trump did impeded its progress.
Biden has his own strategy. One official told The Washington Post the administration will pursue a “careful, modulated diplomatic approach, prepared to offer relief for particular steps” with an “ultimate goal of denuclearization.” But agreeable adjectives won’t dissuade the North Koreans from proceeding with something they believe is vital to their survival.
They believe this because it’s true. In 2018, Vice President Mike Pence warned that North Korea “will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.” The “Libyan model,” you may recall, involved the U.S. and its allies using military force to topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, whose gruesome fate was to be captured and killed by rebels.
But Pence chose exactly the wrong analogy. Gadhafi was vulnerable because he had earlier agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program. Had he managed to assemble an atomic arsenal, the U.S. would not have tried to evict him from power. From Libya, Kim can deduce the potential downside of surrendering his nuclear weapons.
It may not be impossible for the U.S. to reach an agreement with North Korea to freeze or reduce the size of its arsenal in exchange for sanctions relief and full diplomatic relations. But even that limited task will be harder for Biden because of Trump’s self-defeating policy toward another adversary — Iran.
President Barack Obama had joined with several other major nations in negotiating an agreement in which Iran agreed to give up 98% of its stockpile of uranium, dismantle thousands of centrifuges and accept stringent international inspections — all of which would prevent it from building nuclear weapons. In exchange, the U.S. and its partners consented to lift economic sanctions on Tehran.
But Trump stupidly withdrew from the accord, proving that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its commitments. Why would Kim reduce or surrender his nuclear deterrent to get an agreement that might end up in a White House shredder? Why would he risk being naked to his enemies, as Gadhafi was?
The specter of a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles has bedeviled one American president after another. Biden, the latest to confront it, won’t be the last.