What North Korea Really Wants From Trump

Updated on April 25, 2018

When Trump and Kim Jong-un meet sometime early this summer, the big-picture aspirations of both parties will be clear. The U.S. and its regional allies will tone down their military pressure on the North and agree to formally end the Korean War. In exchange, the hermit kingdom will, at least, suspend the testing of its ICBM program

In broad strokes, Kim wants normalized relations between his one party-state and the Democratic west. He hopes to achieve a sense of civility that hasn't existed in the North since its founding. Up until now, neither Kim nor his predecessors have been willing to stop their development of nuclear weapons. While this has deterred military action against the regime, it has also put a massive strain on their economy (North Korea's GDP per capita is an abysmal $1,700 vs $39,400 for South Korea). But now, with demonstrated nuclear capability, Kim is in a position of strength. Whether he can use this to gain traction with Trump remains to be seen.

Economic Aspirations

Kim's biggest incentive to come to the table is his possession of a missile capable of hitting the homeland. The Hwasong-15, tested last November, is estimated to have a theoretical range of over 8,000 miles. This would put every major US city within reach. However, during testing, the missile broke apart reentering the atmosphere, making the effective range zero. But defense officials warn that with additional engineering, the missile would be a potent threat. Coupled with their successful miniaturization of the warhead, North Korea has cleared the last major hurdle in becoming a nuclear state.

But Kim doesn't necessarily want nuclear weapons so much as he wants the insurance they provide. After spending the better part of four decades on missiles, North Korea is predictably turning towards diplomacy. Kim's leveraging his new found military capabilities to fulfill his economic aspirations. While border countries have prevented a total collapse of the North Korean economy, Kim wants sustainability. He'll likely encourage Trump to lessen the sanctions that have crippled growth and prevented comprehensive foreign investment. In the process, he'll receive legitimacy from the international community.

If he can negotiate at least some economic concessions, they'd probably look similar to what Iran achieved with their 2015 nuclear deal: a broad embargo relief, but with rights-reserved to sanction specific individuals and entities as the US see's fit. Overtime, this would enable Kim to move towards a more self-sufficient economy, meaning less reliance on China and Russia, and more opportunity in the world markets.

Not a Zero Sum Game

For Kim, that's a big win. It would mean that he not only oversaw the successful completion of North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but that he also used them to strong arm his way to global deference for said ambitions, all the while fixing a failed economy.

Trump has already indicated though that to even discuss economic relief, Kim must commit to dismantling the arsenal that he and his forefathers have worked tirelessly to build. He's also checked his initial enthusiasm in recent days, stating that the deal must be "fair and reasonable and good" or he'll walk away, likely reverting to his original "fire and fury" stance.

Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron finish a joint press conference Tuesday, during which Trump spoke on the upcoming summit.
Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron finish a joint press conference Tuesday, during which Trump spoke on the upcoming summit.

Total denuclearization is never going to happen. Kim believes his ICBM's keep the long arm of the American military at bay, and will prevent him from becoming another victim of regime change. The isolated nation has offered to negotiate on multiple occasions since at least the Clinton administration but these negotiations have broke down each time, with trust deteriorating to a state of non-existence in the process.

But there's reason to believe, despite the extraordinary risks, that progress may occur. Negotiations with Kim are not a zero sum game. At least, they don't have to be. While North Korea has already received a major concession by a getting a sitting US president to agree to meet, Trump could win bigger in the end. Sure, Trump in North Korea wouldn't be as monumental as Nixon in China simply (due to the stark differences between the communist states), but if he does manage to get Kim to suspend further testing, and ensure they hold up their end of the deal, he would have handled the last remaining rogue member of the "axis of evil."

More importantly, he would have demonstrated to his critics and the world that heavy-handed pressure works better than soft-spoken dialogue. This is a harder accomplishment to tout of course because again, Kim's coming to the table with nuclear rockets in his back pocket, and not simply because of Trump's pressure.

Axis of Evil. US in white. N Korea in Orange. Countries in blue were handled diplomatically by President Obama. Countries in red were handled militarily by President Bush. Countries in yellow are a mix of both.
Axis of Evil. US in white. N Korea in Orange. Countries in blue were handled diplomatically by President Obama. Countries in red were handled militarily by President Bush. Countries in yellow are a mix of both.

Of course, all this remains a long way off, and there's no way of telling how the upcoming meeting will turn out, if it happens at all. It's entirely possible that this is yet another delaying tactic. But given the stage North Korea's nuclear program has progressed to, and examining Kim's long term aim, it seem's he's now prepared to play diplomacy. He's successfully built nuclear weapons, now he wants to bargain with them to expand his empire.

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