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‘Your Mission Is to Keep All This From Collapsing Into Nuclear Hellfire’

An open letter to Donald Trump's new North Korea envoy on how to avoid Armageddon.

A satellite photo from September 16, 2004 depicting what South Korean officials described as "mushroom-shaped clouds" over North Korea's remote northeastern region. (LEE JONG-CHUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A satellite photo from September 16, 2004 depicting what South Korean officials described as "mushroom-shaped clouds" over North Korea's remote northeastern region. (LEE JONG-CHUL/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Steve—is it really ok if I call you Steve?—let me tell you: What got us to the present moment was that North Korea, after decades of trying, finally acquired the ability to nuke the United States. The quicker you figure out that this is the salient fact of our current predicament, the better off the rest of us are. Because if you, Steve, want negotiations to produce anything useful, you need to understand that Kim has the initiative here and what it is that he wants.

Kim Jong Un wants three things: He wants the world to accept North Korea as a country, to accept his family’s right to rule it, and to accept his possession of nuclear arms. Kim is not offering to disarm. He believes it was his nuclear weapons that brought U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang repeatedly, that brought Trump to Singapore to meet with his North Korean counterpart, and that may well deliver Kim a second summit, in the United States. If you get the chance to meet Chairman Kim, he’s going to think to himself it was the bomb that brought you, too, while he tries to remember your name. That is, provided he doesn’t stand you up to visit a potato farm.

What Kim is offering is something other than disarmament. I can’t help but notice, Steve, that you’ve started to use the word “denuclearize” like other U.S. officials. It pains me to point this out, but you are using it wrong. Many Americans have sort of adopted this word as a synonym for “disarmament,” but it has never, ever meant that—especially not when Kim says it. Denuclearization is an aspiration, much like President Barack Obama’s call for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” It was a nice speech, but no one was dumb enough to think he was proposing unilateral disarmament. Obama gave the speech, struck an arms control deal with Russia, then committed to a trillion-dollar modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Something like that is much more up Kim’s alley.

What Kim is offering is not disarmament—but rather something more along the lines of the deal that Israel has. Israel, of course, has nuclear weapons. As an active holder of a security clearance, Steve, you are forbidden from acknowledging this. Blink twice if you are following me. OK, great. Now, everyone knows Israel has nuclear weapons. But Israel does not publicly acknowledge this fact. This was, in fact, the deal that Golda Meir struck with Richard Nixon. If Israel did not mention its bomb in the basement, neither would the United States. This arrangement is called “opacity” or “ambiguity,” although that’s a misleading term. After all, there is no ambiguity about whether Israel has nuclear weapons. A better analogy is some skeleton in the family closet that everyone knows about but no one mentions over Thanksgiving dinner to keep the peace. What we are really talking about is a polite fiction, one that allows diplomats to avoid raising the issue.

Kim wants something like that same deal, Steve. He has agreed to give up nuclear testing. He’s suspending missile launches for the foreseeable future. And he didn’t even show off any missiles in the most recent parade. Kim is willing to stop talking about his bomb and put it back in the basement, just as long as Washington signs a peace treaty and stops complaining about how many bombs that basement holds. I think that’s where we are headed. Remember when Trump tweeted that the problem with North Korea was solved?

I am not kidding. When your boss, Mike Pompeo, tried to press for actual disarmament steps, North Korean official Kim Yong Chol waved a cell phone in his face and suggested he call Trump.

You’re probably going to see a lot of Kim Yong Chol. I have to tell you, Steve, the notorious K.Y.C. is a jerk. He also told Pompeo that if he spent any more time in North Korea, they would tax him as a resident. When he didn’t like a proposal from his South Korean counterparts, he asked if they had another briefcase with a different proposal. And he opened up a 2007 meeting by telling a joke about some American kids who saved President George W. Bush’s life and were offered a reward. The kids, Kim Yong Chol said, opted for plots in Arlington National Cemetery because, when their parents found out who they saved, they would kill them. Steve, this man introduced himself to a group of journalists as “the mastermind of the Cheonan sinking” which he meant as a joke but, since he was actually the mastermind of the Cheonan sinking, wasn’t very funny. You probably won’t depart the Trump administration with your dignity, Steve, but you will have some great “Kim Yong Chol was a jerk” stories for the grandkids.

That is, providing that you, the grandkids, and the rest of us aren’t incinerated in a thermonuclear war brought on by the lunatic with the Twitter account.

That brings me to you, Steve, and your potential contribution to history. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to keep all this from collapsing into recriminations and nuclear hellfire. One of the big takeaways from Glasser’s piece is that all the flunkies, factotums, and yes men around the president think this process is doomed. Not one of you lickspittles—and I mean that in the nicest possible sense, Steve—thinks Kim will abandon his nuclear weapons. Well, not one of you other than Trump himself. I am not sure if you noticed this, but the Donald does not have the best track record when it comes to not getting his way. Ask Justin Trudeau.

We’ve already seen that Trump has a disturbing tendency to blame China’s Xi Jinping, himself a nuclear-armed dictator, when negotiations with North Korea seem to bog down. If you truly think this process is doomed, then your goal is to make sure it fails safely, rather than descending into a nuclear crisis with North Korea or China. That probably means letting negotiations drag out, parceling out one concession after another.

And here, I have a bit of sincere advice: It’s not so bad to settle for less and strike a deal. After all, we’re haggling with a nuclear-armed power. Kim Jong Un has leverage. He’s going to get some of the things he wants that we don’t want to give him. That’s the bomb for you! Conversely, if you ignore the several hundred kilotons of leverage at Kim’s disposal, you are asking for disaster. I wrote a novel, The 2020 Commission, about what might go wrong. I can’t help but notice you live in Alexandria. I don’t want to spoil the ending, in case you want to read it, but I will say that some scenes are set in Alexandria. Can you swim, Steve?

If we don’t want all this to end badly, allow me to suggest you change the way you are approaching this process. Stop pretending Kim has offered to disarm. He did not—we can all read the statement from Singapore. Every time you falsely state that Kim agreed to disarm, you lay the groundwork for the hawks to press the narrative that Kim cheated and return to pressure. That is the route to catastrophe.

Instead, be frank about the fact is that denuclearization is process, a process that is more about reducing the risk of nuclear war than it is about eliminating nuclear weapons. And while we’d all like to ban the bomb, we should not be embarrassed to settle for merely avoiding nuclear holocaust. I mean, I want to live long enough to write another novel. And we’ve got those kids, three for you and three for me. Getting North Korea to stop testing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was nothing to sneeze at—not only did it resolve a political irritant, but more tests would also have resulted in more reliable North Korean military capabilities. Moreover, the United States has other interests short of disarmament, such as stopping North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles and making sure it never again sells a covert nuclear reactor as it did to Syria. There are lots of things that would make the world a safer place if only we focus less on persuading Kim Jong Un to disarm. So if there is one thing that you, Steve Biegun, can do, it is to define success within the denuclearization process short of actual disarmament.

That might not seem like much, but it would be something to tell those still-alive grandkids about.

About the Author

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

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

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