Kim Jong Un and Trump have made considerable progress in forging a base for dialogue between their two countries, but what obstacles does Kim’s recent missile test create?
You know, it’s been a really long time since North Korea threatened to blow us up.
Say what you will about Trump, but there is something to be said for the unprecedented progress he has made with North Korea. Trump is the first American president to meet with a North Korean leader during his time in office, and the two have corresponded with one another on multiple occasions. Kim Jong Un has sent Trump flowery, “beautiful” letters, and Trump famously said the two “fell in love” after their meeting in Singapore last year.
Growing up in the Bush and Obama eras, life felt very consistent. How I Met Your Mother would come on every Monday night, Ohio State would beat Michigan, and North Korean leaders would profess their undying ambition to destroy the United States on state television. That last one hasn’t happened in quite some time, and despite the unpredictability the Trump administration has brought, I’m pleased with the direction our relationship with North Korea seems to be going.
But, with that being said, I have to say that I am not a fan of how Trump has navigated our issues with North Korea. Recognizing that North Korea is an entity that needs to be dealt more maturely than slapping sanctions on them and hoping that they eventually collapse is one thing, but watching the leader of the free world build a personal relationship with a brutal dictator as a means to sidestep more complicated diplomacy and making their countless human rights abuses a non-issue deeply upsets me. However, it seems we are on a much different track with the Hermit Kingdom than we’ve ever been before. Our two countries have come to a loose understanding that we will have further nuclear talks, and Kim seems enthusiastic about reaching an agreement with the United States – even at the cost of his prized nuclear weapons.
So, why did Kim Jong Un test a tactical guided missile last week?
Kim Jong Un’s method of conducting diplomacy with Trump has been interesting to say the least. North Korea testing weapons as an extension of foreign policy is not unusual, but Kim’s recent tactics are different. Historically, North Korea has used weapons tests to respond to American policy decisions they don’t agree with. They’ve been a popular means of deterrence against America’s annual war games with South Korea, and these weapons tests have usually been accompanied by violent rhetoric and swearing to bring nuclear war to the United States.
Trump has even gone so far as to drastically scale back our annual military exercises with South Korea – perhaps a show of good faith to the North to recognize the steps we’ve taken. At first glance, it looks as though Kim is going back on his word by testing his new weapon, or at least his expressed wish for denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.
That’s not how I see it though.
Let’s remember why Kim has been dancing to Trump’s tune for the past year or so. Kim is operating under the assumption that cooperation and denuclearization will lead to the United States lifting its heavy sanctions against North Korea. Kim is a smart man, and he likely understands that the economic stimulus the lifting of sanctions will provide is better for his longevity than a nuclear bomb. It’s a trade he’s willing to make, but only if the United States holds up its end of the bargain.
And that’s just it. Kim didn’t test his new toy because he no longer has interest in pursuing an agreement with the Americans, but rather he’s growing impatient with what he sees as them not doing their part. Sure, Trump agreed to scale back the military exercises, but that’s not what Kim wants, and he’ll use a rocket to get that message across if he has to.
So far, the United States hasn’t made any moves to re-initiate talks with North Korea or suggest that they might lift sanctions, and this missile test shows that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Kim has stated several times since he and Trump met in Hanoi that he would like to continue dialogue with the United States, most recently expressing this to Putin at the Vladivostok summit the other day. The Vladivostok summit itself showed that Kim is willing to explore alternatives to making nice with the Americans – namely building a closer relationship with Moscow.
North Korea and the United States have a long way to go before they can have a relationship that is by any means normal, and it’s going to take a lot more than nice letters between Kim and Trump. We have no means of communication or understanding on the military, civilian or government levels, and all of these will be necessary if we want to do meaningful diplomacy.
One can hope that further talks will unfold and we can begin to solve the denuclearization issue. Personally, I’m not optimistic. Politics aside, in the over two years Trump has been president, I remain unconvinced of his will to pursue long-term solutions to complicated problems. While I’m not convinced our governments will reach a meaningful conclusion, I sincerely hope they continue to push forward for their peoples’ mutual benefit, but only if they are willing to solve other issues plaguing their relationship beyond nuclear weapons.