Guest Opinion: Trump is taking North Korea talks in unknown direction

Back when I was visiting South Korea every year, sometimes two or three times, my first stop was at the intelligence shop of U.S. Forces Korea. There a young Military Intelligence major would brief me, including my ultimate question: “How many nukes do they have in the North.”

Inevitably, the answer was “we don’t know for sure, two or three we think.” The codicil to that answer was that the North had no delivery system, i.e., missiles or bombers (or at least bombers that the U.S. Air Force or the South Korean air force couldn’t shoot down fairly easily). So the threat, while real, was far less serious.

That was 20 or so years ago. Today, North Korea has missiles. Several kinds of missiles. It’s pretty clear they could nuke Japan or some islands in the Pacific right now. Koreans, both north and south, hate the Japanese. Hence, the Japanese are a far more likely target than South Korea. Many, perhaps most, Koreans both north and south have cousins on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Today, the issue is a possible meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Heads are exploding at the State Department, in diplomatic circles and in think tanks. Exploding because President Trump agreed to Kim’s proposed meeting without pre-conditions. In other words, this crowd thinks the very fact of a meeting with the President of the United States has so much value that Kim should give up a lot of something simply to get into the same room.

Reid Beveridge

Now it is quite true that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the north likes to call itself, is a pipsqueak of a nation in most respects. Its people often starve. The electricity doesn’t work most of the time in most of the country. It has almost no economy. What it has are two things, or three depending on how we count:

•Nuclear weapons.

•Intermediate-range and intercontinental missiles.

•A 1.5-million-man army, the largest per capita in the world. This is nearly 10 percent of the total population; nearly 20 percent of the male population, including baby boys and old men.

(By contrast, the U.S. Army is about 460,000, or 0.000003 percent of the male population).

President Trump’s decision to meet with Kim, taken without much consultation with his foreign-policy advisers, is something new. No previous president, or none we know of, has embarked on a serious summit meeting without a lot of preparation ahead of time. If the goal is negotiation and some outcome both sides would like, the conventional wisdom has it that lower-level diplomats work out all the details and only then do the “big guys” meet. Cordialities ensue. The big guys agree on the big stuff, with the details already in place. A grand communique is issued and everyone goes home happy, or at least not sad and mad.

Numerous examples of this methodology can be remembered. President Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev’s meeting in Iceland is one. President Nixon’s visit to China is another. The various meetings involving President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian Premier Josef Stalin are more. Lesser examples abound.

Two points emerge from this litany. The first is that the State Department, various diplomats and think-tank foreign-policy experts put a very high value on requiring American’s negotiating partners giving up some significant point as a condition of meeting with the president, any president. This is especially true of so-called “pipsqueak” nations. True, great-power leaders can get a session with the president easily. Others, not so much.

For example, President Obama never met with Iran’s “supreme leader” when then-Secretary of State John Kerry was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. Iran is hardly a pipsqueak nation, but neither is it a great power.

The second point to be made is that these same experts view success as the only option in such meetings. Failure, therefore, is intolerable, a terrible blot in the United States’ reputation. A humiliation that simply cannot be countenanced.

The trouble with all this is that it is a violation of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. Einstein holds that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. What we know for sure is that the diplomacy employed by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama has brought us to the point of a nuclearized North Korea that threatens U.S. cities. This is not success. We have worked out deals with Kim, his father and grandfather, at various times, all to no avail (in the end).

President Trump is trying something different. He is doing that in part because he is different. This horrifies the foreign-policy elites.

Stay tuned. But don’t faint dead away in the process.

Reid K. Beveridge, a retired Army brigadier general, deployed to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) 11 times during the 1990s for various military exercises. He also is a former editor of a national military magazine.

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