Trump’s Shift on North Korea Is Fraught With Peril

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump looks poised to smash another pillar of U.S. foreign policy in his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. For decades, Washington has aimed for a grand bargain with North Korea: Give up your nukes, and get rich in return. This time, Trump seems ready to accept more limited goals, in exchange for more limited benefits.

For once, the president’s break with tradition is a good idea. Demanding total denuclearization was always a nonstarter. A fresh approach, based on baby steps rather than great leaps, might build confidence and eventually lead to a full settlement.

Yet there are also serious risks. Such a dramatic shift cannot take place in the vacuum of a two-day summit, or emerge from the motivations of one man, even if he is the U.S. president. The change must be part of a greater foreign policy framework that addresses the potential fallout, coordinates with allies and requires tough decisions on what the end game can or should be.

From a certain perspective, the mere fact that Trump might let Kim walk away from the table without making a hard commitment to dismantle his nuclear program is itself a major concession. Recall that Trump’s previous position was complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization – full stop. Though we don’t know what the final agreement will be – if there is one at all – it’s more likely to include measures such as limits on North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and perhaps the closure of some facilities. In return, Trump may offer relief on sanctions or economic cooperation.

But that would still leave the North with nuclear bombs and the ability to deliver them. And here we get into danger territory. A piecemeal approach leaves North Korea as much of a security threat as it ever was. There’s no guarantee Kim will become a more responsible global citizen, or agree to disgorge his entire weapons program. His aim could be to extract economic concessions from Trump while keeping a grip on his nuclear deterrent. The Kim dynasty that’s ruled North Korea has proved highly adept at stringing along negotiating partners with paper promises and vague commitments in the hope of grabbing a few extra goodies.

In other words, taking small steps potentially makes the North an even greater threat, by providing it with expanded economic resources. That won’t go down well with neighbors, most of all Japan. Pyongyang has already proved itself capable of lobbing missiles over Japan, meaning Tokyo is a much more likely target of a North Korean nuclear attack than Washington. Allowing Kim to keep his finger on the launch button might leave Japan feeling abandoned by its closest ally and compel this technologically advanced nation to build nuclear weapons of its own.

If Trump is going to change policy, he needs to work closely with allies – something he’s shown little ability to do so far. Otherwise, he runs the risk of straining the security alliances he needs not just to contain the North, but to confront an increasingly aggressive China. Even worse, switching tactics on North Korea could unleash a broader arms race in East Asia.

Trump should also worry that his shift will ricochet into other parts of the world – most frighteningly, the Middle East. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran, asserting it wasn’t strong enough, and imposed new sanctions. Now, watching the Hanoi summit, Iran’s leaders could easily come to the conclusion that the U.S. would be more inclined to negotiate if they had nuclear weapons, too. Like a nuclear-tipped game of Whac-a-Mole, Trump could be swinging his mallet at one problem only to watch another pop up elsewhere.

It’s not at all clear whether the president has thought through these potential complications. His penchant for self-aggrandizement and disdain for the foreign-policy establishment renders coordinated strategy difficult. He’s also shown himself willing to throw long-time allies under the bus in pursuit of a political goal.

Trump may be heading, perhaps inadvertently, toward an even more fundamental change in U.S. policy: tolerance of nuclear proliferation. Pursuing more limited agreements with North Korea should raise the uncomfortable question of whether Washington is prepared to accept the rogue state as a nuclear power, as it did China, India and Pakistan in the past.

Setting aside the demand for immediate denuclearization is, in effect, tacit acknowledgement of North Korea’s nuclear status, at least for the time being. That may be pragmatic. It’s also problematic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael Schuman, who is based in Beijing, is the author of "The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth" and "Confucius and the World He Created."

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