An open letter to Donald Trump’s new North Korea envoy on how to avoid Armageddon.
Dear Steve. Can I call you Steve? You have a bunch of kids. Me too. I feel like we have a lot in common. (And Mr. Biegun just sounds so formal.)
Congratulations on your appointment as U.S. special representative for North Korea policy! Sorry to hear that your first trip was canceled.
I couldn’t help but notice that you were quoted in Susan Glasser’s really excellent New Yorker essay, saying, “Essentially, the President’s crazy-ass style got us in a position where we might actually have an opportunity, so let’s try. I don’t know if it will work, but let’s try.”
Now, Steve, I am not sure I know what precisely you meant by this. But your statement concerns me. While I am excited by your enthusiasm, I am also a bit worried. Because the words you chose, Steve, suggest you fundamentally don’t understand where we are, how we got here, and how it might all go wrong.
Let’s start by talking about how we got here. I don’t have to tell you, Steve, that the year of our Lord 2017 was pretty effed up. In case you were too busy in your previous gig at Ford Motor Co., this is how it went down.
On New Year’s Day, Kim Jong Un stated that North Korea would complete development of an intercontinental ballistic missile to “cope with the imperialists’ nuclear war threats.” (That means you, Steve.) A few months later,
Kim watched a test of a new type of engine. Then, in short order, Kim watched the tests of three new missiles using this engine: the Hwasong-12, the Hwasong-14 (North Korea’s first ICBM), and the Hwasong-15.
Then, Kim posed with a mockup of a thermonuclear weapon. Before anyone had time to wonder whether it was a real or not: BOOM. North Korea detonated that device in its largest-ever nuclear test. Along the way, Kim always watched tests of a variety of new, shorter-range missiles.
I know that before your appointment, Steve, you didn’t really follow issues on the Korean Peninsula. Well, I did, and I had never seen anything like it.
President Donald Trump in what you called his “crazy-ass style” spent the year blustering and threatening North Korea. He said he wouldn’t allow North Korea to test an ICBM that could strike the United States. (Guess what, Steve? It did, three times.)
He said that if Kim continued to threaten the United States, he would be met with “fire and fury.” (Kim did, Steve, but you may have noticed Trump did nothing.)
I say this to explain that nothing Donald Trump did in 2017 made the slightest bit of difference to Kim Jong Un, who completed a decades-long effort to develop the capability to deliver a thermonuclear weapon to targets throughout the United States, all the way down to Mar-a-Lago.
When 2017 ended, it was time for Kim to give another New Year’s address. And this time, he struck a different tone. Kim made it clear that North Korea had now completed the development of its nuclear force, which meant two things.
First, North Korea would now shift to mass production of these missiles. Second, North Korea was now secure enough against U.S. attack to shift its emphasis to improving the economy. Here’s a translation for your briefing book, Steve.
The Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul, which wants to improve relations with Pyongyang whether it disarms or not, liked what it heard and was quick to embrace Kim Jong Un.
In return, North Korea sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics. And Kim made a series of gestures toward disarmament—he invited journalists to watch the closure of North Korea’s nuclear test site and began to disassemble an engine test stand to symbolize his willingness to suspend missile tests.
He also renewed North Korea’s long-standing offer of a summit with the president of the United States. At the same time—and this is pretty important—North Korea has continued to produce new long-range missiles and nuclear weapons to arm them. Kim is doing precisely what he said he would do: shift toward deployment of nuclear forces while focusing more on the economy.
The point of this little refresher is this: Trump’s crazy-ass style did not get us here. All the sycophants, toadies, and bootlickers working for Trump—of which you are now one; congratulations, Steve!—are telling him that his “maximum pressure” campaign led us to this moment.
But that is true only in the sense that it was the failure of that campaign, and the collapse of sanctions enforcement, that set the stage for the current situation in which Kim is deploying a nuclear deterrent while moving to normalize North Korea’s relations with its neighbors.
Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk
This article was originally published by Foreign Policy
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