What changed Kim Jong Un’s mind to suddenly throw away all the money, security and family heritage he has invested in nukes? In less than a year he has switched from threatening nuclear holocaust to sweet reason and brotherly embraces. The concessions he offers are so accommodating they invite disbelief.

Kim’s grandfather began North Korea’s nuclear project, which has cost the small, poor country much. But, the regime publicly argues, only nukes protect us from another American onslaught. Saddam and Qaddafi gave up nuclear programs, and see what happened to them. So, we’re entitled to nuclear deterrence. Pyongyang has never abandoned this line.

Trumpers claim this time is different, because he has imposed sanctions on North Korea that really hurt. As part of a con, Kim might like Trump to think he’s prevailed. Following the 1994-98 mass famine, in which possibly more than a million died, the regime permitted some private enterprise, and the economy improved. Since when does economic growth matter more to Kim than nukes? Kim could have gotten a trade deal years ago, peacefully.

Beijing advised Pyongyang for years to follow the Chinese economic model of markets, private firms, foreign direct investment and exports. It gave us record growth, says Beijing, and the Party retains power. North Korea never adopted China’s policy, preferring autarky. Xi Jinping and Kim severely mistrust each other. Why would Kim accept the Chinese model now?

Kim manipulates expertly: Testing nukes and rockets raises tensions with South Korea, Japan and the U.S. and then, when they’re scared, offer reason and flexibility, provided Kim gets recognition, trade, aid and withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.

Were Kim’s nuclear threats just a charade? One Australian professor conjectures that Kim has no nukes; he just explodes dynamite to mimic nuclear tests. Improbable, but it would explain Kim’s sudden willingness to abandon nukes. I think Kim has nuclear devices, but not ready for launch as warheads.

 


Many suspect Kim will merely pause his nuclear and missile programs until U.S. forces leave Korea, then resume development. Kim promises to shut down his nuclear test site, but he’s got other sites nearby. Will Kim accept thorough, intrusive inspections — any time, anywhere?

One interesting point is the convergence of American liberals and conservatives on the same criticism: In three Korea deals since 1994, Pyongyang got economic bonuses but refused to follow through. Some liken it to reselling a bridge to the same sucker. Or, “We’ve seen this movie before.”

Henry Kissinger warned against confusing the “atmospherics” of high-level meetings with their substance. It’s easy to get swept up in the smiles, handshakes and pleasantries when government chiefs meet. Kim has mastered such theatricality.

Nice atmospherics, however, may or may not resolve conflicts. In several of the meetings between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, atmospherics matched substance, lowering tensions and ultimately ending the Cold War. But the Soviet Union was in steep economic decline, and Gorbachev really needed improved relations. Is Kim that desperate?

Before that, U.S.-Soviet meetings yielded little. Khrushchev, enraged (or pretending to be) over U2 spyplanes, deliberately wrecked the Paris summit with Ike in 1960. The following year, Kennedy returned from meeting Khrushchev in Vienna angry that the Soviet chief was laying down the law to him on Berlin, Laos and Cuba. It contributed to his Vietnam decisions.

On the other hand, the near-absence of atmospherics may produce agreements with far-reaching consequences. Most shrugged off the 1975 Helsinki Final Act signed by 35 nations as nice but unimportant. It confirmed Europe’s postwar borders and thus lowered tensions a bit. But Helsinki also boosted dissent in Communist lands, leading to bloc-wide upheaval in 1989.

The atmospherics of the recent Kim–Moon meeting dominate the media, generating optimism for Trump’s upcoming summit with Kim. Trump takes credit for it but adds that it might fail, a hard line now emphasized by hawkish new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. South Korea really wants a peace deal and will be very unhappy at failure. But that is not the uppermost concern of Trump, Pompeo and Bolton, who are also willing to tear up the Iran nuclear deal.

I’m pessimistic, but a Korea deal is possible if the parties really want one. Over, say, three years, North Korea could submit to nuclear inspection while the U.S. gradually withdraws from South Korea, whose armed forces are quite formidable. Washington could forswear any interest in regime change or Korean unification.

After initial progress, Washington could add sweeteners, such as diplomatic recognition and trade. North Korea’s economy, with cheap labor, could set growth records. Is it conceivable, though, that Kim will sacrifice nukes for economic growth? Covertly, he’ll try to get both.

Trump and Kim are similar. Both are childish and poorly educated but suppose they can win with lies, threats and bluster, then abruptly reverse course. What happens when two such personalities collide?