Trump Should Invite Kim Jong Un to Washington
Trump recently tweeted that North Korea would face “fire and fury” if it did not stop with its threats. North Korean media has responded by claiming their military is awaiting approval from Kim to launch Hwasong-14 rockets to hit the waters around the U.S. territory of Guam. These threats to the physical security of each other’s countries jolt the national sense of self-preservation. Not surprisingly, the resulting cycle where both parties up the ante in words is as predictable as it is unproductive.
Trump should do what he does best – the unexpected and the unconventional. He once said that under the “right circumstances” he would be “honored” to meet Kim. Where did that Trump go – the one willing to talk things out with world leaders, instead of aimlessly threaten? It would raise the hackles of certain hawks and hardliners, but Trump should invite Kim to Washington and offer to visit Pyongyang in return.
It should be noted that deterrence is necessary, and it is vital that Washington stand with its allies against a bully like North Korea. The statements to this effect made by Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense Mattis are correct. However, refusing to talk to Kim is counterproductive because it heightens the likelihood of deadly miscommunication between the two countries. The signals each country sends are important, but so is how those signals are interpreted. Therefore, one of the necessary conditions for the final plunge into war is a state of mind: the belief that, whether accurate or not, violence is inevitable.
Many people object, saying that, when dealing with Pyongyang, reason can do no good. However, just because Kim Jong Un is a homicidal tyrant does not mean that he disregards his own survival. On the contrary, the fact that America could destroy North Korea anytime it wants to means that to strike the U.S. or its allies would invite certain death. But the key is that Pyongyang will not strike for no reason. No matter which Kim ruled North Korea, they have always had a motivation for their actions, even if they seemed bizarre or hostile to outsiders. North Korea has a historical pattern of causing a scene by sabre rattling to force concessions, such as aid, from the international community, to ensure their importance as a power to be taken seriously, or to help one of the Kims maintain power domestically.
When Kim previously carried out attacks, they were always a part of the pattern of provocation. For instance, in 2010 Kim ordered the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the shelling of the South Korean Yeonpyeong island. Any future attacks will also be a part of that pattern. It is important to note that an attack is not the same thing as committing all national forces into a total war. For Kim, a conventional attack near, even on Guam, would be to get a concession or to make a point. Such a strike would provoke a vigorous U.S. response. Kim knows this and has, therefore, made his plans public, including one very important and overlooked detail. It should be pointed out that despite the hype in the media, North Korea has repeatedly said it would strike the water 18-25 miles around Guam and not Guam itself. Such an action is still an attack on U.S. territory as it would probably fall within America’s 24-mile contiguous zone, according to international law, but it is not the same as attacking a U.S. base or civilians. This distinction matters. The governor of Guam himself believes so, saying that “They’re now telegraphing their punch, which means they don't want to have any misunderstandings.”
Starting a war he cannot win would be suicide, but it would only be worth it from Kim’s view if his country were already good as dead in his eyes––perhaps a last desperate gamble to preserve the Kim dynasty. Although little is known for certain about Pyongyang's nuclear doctrine, two facts remain: that it was influenced by Russia’s and that North Korean media and officials have said that they could engage in the first use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s doctrine of asymmetric escalation states that if a war is about to be lost, or your own nuclear weapons destroyed, those weapons ought to be used to destroy the other side’s armies, even if they are in your own territory, with the goal of forcing the other side to negotiate. The theory goes that if the other side no longer has any forces left to fight, then it must come to terms because if it retaliated with nuclear weapons, then both sides would end up using them on both military and civilian targets, resulting in mutual devastation.
The options facing America are grim. Trump could increase pressure through yet more sanctions or military drills and hope Kim backs down. In this particular show down, Kim could blink. However, tightening the screws will not cause the Supreme Leader to give up his nuclear arms since they are the sword that ensures the survival of his regime. Conversely, the U.S. can push until the question of Pyongyang’s possession of the bomb is taken by one side to the battlefield for resolution. Under that scenario, tens of thousands or millions could die. Clean up, and control over a defeated North Korea would be a nightmare. And still, the question of what China would do if the U.S. steps in looms.
A tense but relatively stable power dynamic between the U.S. and North Korea is better than war. Once the nuclear genie got out of the bottle, there was no putting it back in. The bomb and long range missiles are the blackmail that ensures Kim's survival, and therefore he will never give them up.
America must realize it already lives in such a world where there are only two alternatives: Washington could decide that the cost of removing any nuclear capability from Pyongyang is worth the large and bloody cost. Alternatively, Trump could diplomatically engage North Korea and hope that Kim’s slow market reforms will eventually lead to a peaceful change of course.
There’s no way to “solve” the North Korean dilemma. This situation is full of uncomfortable, hard, and unfair truths with no easy resolution in sight. But perhaps President Trump should make use of his overly-self assured, unorthodox nature to get Kim back to the table and his finger away from the trigger. An offer for a historic visit of each country's leader to the other's capital could do just that.
John Dale Grover is a Young Voices Advocate and a Graduate student at George Mason University’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution Program.