Kim Jong-un has threatened twice in the past week to cancel the meeting that he himself proposed with U.S. president Donald Trump. He appears to be acting out in his typical manner in order to try to put pressure on the United States and Korea and to win concessions.
The United States isn’t in a dire position, however, and the U.S. doesn’t need anything from Kim Jong-un so badly as to justify making extreme concessions. If Kim doesn’t want to denuclearize for limited concessions, if he is unwilling to negotiate sincerely, then the U.S. shouldn’t meet him.
The first time Kim threatened to pull out was after Trump’s National Security Advisor and former Bush advisor John Bolton called for a “Libya-style” denuclearization. Bolton is a hawk who has long called openly for overthrow of the North Korea regime, a worthy and moral goal (if reasonably possible) to be sure, but talking about or implying it obviously isn’t something that will help get to an agreement for Kim to voluntarily denuclearize.
The next and present reason Kim is using to threaten going forward with the meeting is much less reasonable. He wants the U.S. and Republic of Korea to end joint-self defense exercises. He thinks those exercises–and indeed the presence of U.S. troops in Korea–threaten his regime. Those troops are present because his grandfather invaded the Republic of Korea, his father sunk a Korean ship, and he shelled an island with civilian residents. They kidnapped Koreans and Japanese and tortured people for watching DVDs. Aggressive acts and attacks beyond borders are almost always caused by the totalitarian regime north of the 38th parallel.
The U.S. and Korea have already delayed military exercises, before the Korean Olympics, and now before the proposed meeting. But North Korea’s foreign ministry continues to make demands, saying, as characterized by Reuters, “the future of summit is entirely up to Washington.”
Well, if Kim doesn’t want this summit to happen, then it doesn’t have to happen. Washington doesn’t have to–and shouldn’t–do anything more for it to happen than it already has.
Kim could get a lot more out of an agreement to have his thiefdom recognized as a country by the United States and/or to have sanctions lifted than America could get from him. What can Kim offer? Will he really denuclearize? That’s hard to believe, considering how he and his predecessors have behaved in the past. Does the U.S. desperately need him to denuclearize (or, more likely and less helpful to the U.S., to partially denuclearize or freeze or slow down the speed of development)? To prevent him from threatening to nuke the United States?
Considering that any attack on the United States would be tantamount to suicide of his regime, he cannot credibly threaten to attack. America, moreover, would easily decimate his regime, so America has little to fear, comparatively, from his hypothetical attack. If the U.S. believes that Kim would be open to sincerely negotiating in order to ensure his regime’s survival, then the U.S. believes he is a rational actor; if he is a rational actor, then that also means he wouldn’t use nuclear weapons (except as a last resort in a crisis).
He may very well be acting rationally in pushing more and more demands on the American side. Having seen the U.S. delay its military exercises, he might be calculating how much the U.S. would be willing to give up, how easily the U.S. could be manipulated. He might think after Trump has boasted so much about this meeting–to the point of openly campaigning for a Nobel–that Trump would give anything to get a public relations deal at the meeting. Trump might well think he has more to lose from the meeting being canceled than his country does.
If Kim is testing the U.S. on how much it is willing to give up, then the U.S. should provide the answer now: no more.