Last week’s much-lauded second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un failed to produce the results that all reasonable people were hoping for.
Unfortunately, the meeting itself ended prematurely. Trump claimed that the early break was due to a disagreement over sanctions relief for Pyongyang, but in a rare press conference, a North Korean official disputed this account. In any case, there was no agreement regarding the longstanding quest to decrease tensions and verifiably denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Some commentators blamed John Bolton, well-documented war hawk and National Security Advisor to President Trump, for the summit’s failure. Bolton, who has previously called for a preemptive strike on North Korea, appeared to have taken a larger role in the summit based on the fact that he was more prominently seated at several sessions than other officials, including the more qualified (and level-headed) Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun. It is entirely possible that the failure of the summit was caused by Bolton contradicting his boss’s desire for peace with his longstanding pro-war agenda.
Despite the summit’s failure - and regardless of who may be to blame - the Trump administration must keep working for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The costs of a conflict there, nuclear or otherwise, would be catastrophic. For a time, the president’s own “fire and fury” rhetoric and his administration’s contemplation of a “bloody nose” first strike made it clear that they had little concept of just how dangerous such a war could be. With U.S. troops and treaty allies as well as nuclear-armed China and Russia in the neighborhood, the risk of escalation is almost incalculable.
All of this is not to say that North Korea is easy to negotiate with - to be sure, the opposite is true. Just days after the summit concluded, news broke that Pyongyang has apparently been working to rebuild a facility used for testing both satellites and long-range missiles.
Unfortunately, there is recent and historical evidence to support the concern that the Kim regime does not always act above board. North Korea famously broke a nuclear agreement negotiated in the late 90s, and reports from the past two years have repeatedly indicated that they are moving weapons, underreporting their nuclear stockpiles, and covertly continuing work on weapons programs.
These challenges are exactly why arms control agreements with adversaries must be based on rigorous inspections and verification regimes that allow for verifiable progress in the complex process of denuclearization. When negotiating with the Soviet Union, President Reagan famously said, “trust but verify;” President Obama updated this aphorism for his engagement with Iran, arguing that we should instead, “distrust and verify.”
These cautious approaches, however, are a far cry from President Trump’s own attitude towards North Korea’s Kim. From talking about how they “fell in love” over letters to insisting that there is no reason he shouldn’t like Kim (despotic rule and threats to global stability, apparently, notwithstanding), the current president has taken a much softer approach than his predecessors.
Between North Korea’s dishonest tendencies, the influence of bad actors like Bolton, and President Trump’s own susceptibility to flattery, the negotiations with Pyongyang are an uphill battle. Regardless, it remains imperative to our national security that the hard work of diplomacy continues, with the conversations led by career experts, rather than ideologues or politicians. While progress may be slow going, it is certainly preferable to any armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. And of course, the ultimate goal must remain clear, verifiable steps to denuclearization - not an agreement based on blind trust between individual leaders.
Anything less flies in the face of the tradition of strong American diplomacy. More importantly, abandoning negotiations now will lead us down a path towards disastrous conflict.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.