Why Trump should 'get out of the way' and let Koreans make a deal on their own

Michael Desch, professor at Notre Dame
Key Points
  • Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-in met in an historic summit at the Korean DMZ.
  • Talks included denuclearization of the North and a formal peace agreement 65 years after the end of the Korean war.
  • The Trump administration is preparing to have it's own meeting with Kim. Here's why it should let the Koreans go it alone.
South Korean president, Moon Jae-in (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) are hugging after issuing a joint statement in the Peace House building at the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea on April 27, 2018.
Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps | Getty Images

We awoke this morning to dramatic pictures of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un waddling through the Peace Village of Panmunjom in the Korean demilitarized zone toward the raised stone line marking the armistice line (and de facto) border between the two Koreas.

Waiting for him on the other side with an out-stretched hand was South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The leaders of the two sides, one elected in free and fair elections and the other the third generation scion of a corrupt and sclerotic family dynasty, engaged in a long handshake that rivaled in length, if not the variety of grips, President Trump's friendly arm-wrestling with French President Emanuel Macron earlier this week.

Kim and Moon then sat down for a meeting to raise, but certainly not settle, a wide-range of weighty issues dividing the Peninsula at the 38th Parallel. Among them are ending the Korean War (the fighting stopped in 1953 but the war between North and South is still technically on the books) and freezing the Hermit Kingdom's budding nuclear program.

It is too early to tell whether these first hints of a diplomatic thaw on the Korean Peninsula indicate that the long winter of the Korean War is really over. Still, like the first cracks in the ice of late winter, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's symbolic step into South Korea may be a harbinger of change.

The Kim family's multi-generational kleptocracy has little to show for itself save for a handful of unreliable rockets and a rudimentary nuclear capability. Neither will feed his starving country nor keep his ambitious inner-circle happy. The South Koreans, in turn, are rattled by President Trump's wild swings from school-yard taunting to bromantic fawning over Kim, and so are pursuing rapprochement on their own.

It is worth thinking about whether such an approach might ultimately be less risky and more successful than one based on continuing deep U.S. engagement?

This may be a good time for President Trump and the U.S. to get out of the way and let the two sides of the DMZ try to work things out by themselves. It may sound like a risky approach at first blush. But it is worth thinking about whether such an approach might ultimately be less risky and more successful than one based on continuing deep U.S. engagement.

Under President Trump, the U.S. has careened in recent month from nuclear saber-rattling about "fire and fury" to suddenly jumping at the prospect of a summit meeting with the "honorable" Mr. Kim. Aside from subjecting our allies to strategic whiplash with our dramatic change of strategic and diplomatic course, both of these approaches by themselves pose their own risks.

The clear and present danger of the former is nuclear war, or at least perilous conventional conflict. Conversely, the president's new-found enthusiasm for bilateral diplomacy with Kim risks the United States getting suckered into a fruitless series of negotiations (keep in mind that the peace negotiations at Panmunjon have been dragging on for 65 years!) that might result in an even "badder" deal than his predecessor signed with Iran or forcing him to storm out of the negotiations in a huff. Neither would be a good outcome.

Admittedly, adopting a more restrained diplomatic posture is not without risk as well. There is a short-term risk that Kim will exploit his southern counterpart's peace offensive and leave President Moon with egg on his face. But better him than the leader of the free world.

We should keep in mind that such an approach also poses risks for Kim. The first fan of Dennis Rodman sits atop a brittle autocracy that likely cannot survive more open relations with the South over the longer term.

During the Détente period, many hawks advocated keeping diplomatic and cultural relations between East and West in the deep freeze. While they were right that containment of communism required a military sword and shield, what finally brought communism down was the power of the appeal of freedom, which greater diplomatic and cultural contact amplified.

And what if the negotiations between the two sides got so serious that Kim offered to denuclearize in exchange for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Peninsula? That might not be such a bad deal either.

Despite its advantages in number of troops (many of them under-armed and malnourished) and artillery, the North has no real ability to fight and win a war against the South, though it could surely cause a lot of damage in a lost war.

Even without U.S. ground forces, which by the way we have considered unilaterally withdrawing on occasion over the years, the most timely and effective contribution America could make to South Korea's defense is air power which could be called in quickly from U.S. bases elsewhere in the region.

Critics will reasonably object that such an American approach in which we in essence hold both sides' coats in not without risks. But they ignore the risks of deeper U.S. involvement. This might be a time in which the risks of a adopting a lower American profile are worth taking and letting the Koreans take the lead to try to work things out.

Commentary by Michael Desch, a professor of political science at Notre Dame and director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. He is co-author of the book "Privileged and Confidential: The Secret History of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board" with K. Michael Absher and Roman Popadiuk. Follow him on Twitter @mcdesch.

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