Donald Trump gets credit for the Korean Summit because he happens to be president when the meeting was held. That is the nature of politics, the individual at the helm of the political body gets to take credit for the activity that happens. But, and this is important, many times the activity is the result of other factors that lead to the activity. The Korean summit is an example of this.
To understand the geopolitics of the Korean summit it is important to understand the underlining things that are happening now. Unlike Trump’s predecessors, there are many factors that have led us to this point. The first, and most, important factor is that Kim Jong Un is now a credible threat to the United States.
North Korea has proven it can launch a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. Whether it can launch it and deliver a payload, conventional or nuclear, is still up for debate, but the fact is that there is belief that North Korea can at least deliver one nuclear bomb to the continental United States.
North Korea is also a nuclear state who has demonstrated the ability to detonate a nuclear device.
These two things are an important part of the geopolitics of the region. To understand this, it is important to remember that North Korea is still, technically, in a state of war. The Korean War is a relic of the Cold War and it was mostly a proxy war between the USSR/China and the United States with Koreans as the pawns. The stated policy of the United States for the Korean War was to do away with communism. To do so, it was understood that the Korean peninsula would be a united country under South Korea. In other words, the world view of North Korea is that it is to be obliterated and the North Korean people would be put under the authority of South Korea.
Whether we agree, or not, that is the world view of North Korea, because from their point of view, the war never ended, and the United States maintains a strong presence on their border. From North Korea’s points of view, the former USSR left a long time ago, and China keeps North Korea as a buffer, offering limited support and using North Korea as a political pawn for China’s ascent into a world power.
As far as Kim Jong Un is concerned, it is North Korea against the United States with South Korea nothing but a surrogate for America.
North Korea’s strategy for keeping its sovereignty intact remains the same, as it was in the 1950’s when the armistices was signed. It is to keep a deterrence in place against an invasion from the United States. At first it was to keep the credible threat that North Korea would kill as many South Koreans as possible before the United States could use its military technology and might to invade the country and topple the government.
It did this by keeping a large standing army and large stocks of conventional weapons, like artillery, ready to attack South Korea.
But keeping a standing army and weapons stocks is economically unfeasible over time. This is especially true after the USSR ceased to exist, and thus its support vanished, and China kept lowering its economic support for North Korea as China ascended as a world power. China needs North Korea as a defensive buffer and thus it wants North Korea to remain both independent and somewhat subservient to China.
But North Korea’s long-range plan was to be a credible threat to the United States so that it could focus on its internal problems. As far as North Korea is concerned, it is the United States’ policy to see North Korea absorbed into South Korea.
As such, it had two options, develop the ability to project military power towards the United States and develop the defensive capability through deterrence to keep the United States at bay. To project military power across the ocean to move soldiers and military tools requires a significant investment in airlift and, or blue water fleets to include aircraft and aircraft carriers. North Korea does not have the resources for either, few countries do.
That left North Korea with the only option of developing the defensive posture of mutually assured destruction (MAD) by developing nuclear weapons and the delivery vehicles. Except, that even MAD was extraordinarily expensive as the total destruction of the United States, even with nuclear weapons is extraordinarily difficult because of technology and the size of America.
However, politically it is sufficient to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans in the continental United States for it to be politically unpalatable for any American president to order the invasion of North Korea. Remember, not only would South Korea suffer substantial losses, but if one nuclear missile would be able to kill Americans that is unacceptable to the American government. Thus, MAD is achieved by the notion that North Korea can deliver at least one nuclear missile to America.
This capability was demonstrated towards the end of the Obama administration and during the beginning of Trump’s terms. This is a significant difference from previous American administrations.
However, in addition, China, under significant world pressure, along with other countries has significantly economically isolated North Korea. The North Korean economy is nonexistent, and its people have suffered for a long time. It is only a matter of time before the North Korean people rise up and topple its government. This is especially true now that technology is making it difficult for the regime to keep information from filtering into the country. Additionally, the North Korean people know they have the nuclear capability to hurt the United States and thus are now ready for a sustainable economy.
It is important to note that the North Korean people have been isolated and thus do not know more than being hungry. Believing that the North Koreans are ready for democracy and fancy hotels ignores the fundamental truth that people do not want something they have no experience with. How can you want democracy if you know nothing about it?
The ability to be a credible threat to the United States and the economic situation has now brought us to this point. North Korea is ready to talk.
The question is whether any other administration, besides Donald Trump, would have entertained talking one-on-one with Kim Jong Un. That is an open question that can be debated ad nauseum.
As such, Trump should get credit for giving Kim Jong Un the world standing where dialog can be had.
However, it is important to note that the dialog would not be happening if Kim Jong Un did not have the credible threat to hurt the United States.
This leads us to what is trickling out of the North Korean summit.
First, and foremost, Kim Jong Un now has credibility to make demands. Besides Trump’s elevation of the dictator, Jong Un has the threat capability.
The United States and most of the world wants North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. Kim Jong Un wants to feel safe that the United States would never topple his government. The world and Kim Jong Un want the North Korean people to be able to eat and eventually for North Korea to modernize.
Dialog would allow this to happen by loosening world sanctions and allowing food to enter and the economy to grow. That will take time and North Korea is not about to give up its deterrence until it feels safe.
Will Kim Jong Un feel safe with a promise from America never to invade it? It is likely not. Will Kim Jong Un feel safe with the declaration that the Korean peninsula is “nuclear free?”
Think about this for a moment. There are four powers with interest in North Korea that are nuclear capable. Obviously, North Korea is one, the United States is another and China and Russia round out the rest. South Korea is not nuclear capable.
Would Kim Jong Un give up his nuclear deterrence for China’s protection, Russia’s protection or the American promise to never invade North Korea?
That is the underlining question.
This brings us to the what comes first to the whole debacle. Does the world lift some, or all sanctions before North Korea relinquishes its weapons, or does North Korea relinquish its nuclear arsenal before sanctions are lifted?
North Korea has achieved two significant wins already, the American promise to forgo further joint military operations with South Korea and giving Kim Jong Un the status of a world leader.
But, it likely needs more before the nuclear question is addressed.
How much more is the world, and Donald Trump, willing to give it is open to debate.
However, is there an outcome that Donald Trump can rightly take credit for world peace?
It is very unlikely as the only pathway to peace in the Korean peninsula is for North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. If this happens under Trump’s tenure, then he gets all the credit. Otherwise, whoever happens to be president at that time will get the credit.
Absent a miracle, Donald Trump will not get the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for North Korea.