What’s the bottom line on the collapse of the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un?
According to Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration, it’s that Trump “didn’t make a bad deal, and a lot of people feared he would.”
This is the standard view of America’s foreign policy “Blob” — the oozing mass of think tank experts, future government-officials-in waiting, and cable TV commentators that constitutes the mass mind of Washington, D.C.
The reality is exactly the opposite: Almost any deal would have been preferable to Trump returning home empty-handed. That’s because the most dangerous actor by far on the Korean peninsula is the United States, not North Korea — and that’s in normal times. The U.S. is even more terrifying than normal with the Trump administration running things.
Even the Blob understands that North Korea will never use its nuclear weapon in an unprovoked, suicidal first strike against the U.S. Rather, the Blob’s concern is that its weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, provide a deterrent against military action by America and thus, are unacceptable.
What exactly was possible in Vietnam is unclear. According to Trump, North Korea “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety” without completely dismantling its nuclear weapons program, “and we couldn’t do that.” North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho says that North Korea offered to “permanently and completely dismantle” its main nuclear production facility in return for the lifting of “partial sanctions.” It would be nice to believe that the U.S. government is more trustworthy than North Korea’s on this subject, but that’s actually not the case in general and definitely is not where the Trump administration is concerned.
What is clear is that ahead of the summit, much of the U.S. media acted as a mouthpiece for the Blob and its anxieties. The outline of one potential agreement, Vox explained — a formal end to the Korean War and the relaxing of some sanctions in return for a halt to nuclear activities at a main North Korean facility — “looks like a huge win for Kim. For the U.S.? Not so much.”
NBC reported as a huge bombshell that the U.S. was not demanding that North Korea “disclose a full accounting of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs” as part of a Hanoi agreement. But this was not news at all. Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special representative for North Korea, stated weeks ago that the U.S. would merely require such a declaration “at some point.”
Indeed, insisting that North Korea reveal everything about its nuclear weapons program right now would be a sign that the U.S. intended for negotiations to fail. Without a peace deal, no country is going to tell a powerful adversary exactly what to bomb in case of war. This is particularly true when that adversary is the U.S., which in 1998 used information from United Nations weapons inspections to create a target list in Iraq “stunning in its specificity.” Making the idea even more preposterous is that during the Korean War in the 1950s, America conducted one of the most brutal air wars in history on North Korea. We dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on the country than we used in all of the Pacific in World War II, burning all of its cities to the ground and killing perhaps 20 percent of its population.
What the Blob seems to have completely forgotten is that little more than a year ago, it seemed plausible that Trump was going to singlehandedly drag the world into nuclear war.
In August 2017, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” That September at the U.N., Trump called Kim “rocket man” and announced that the U.S. may “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, known to frequently discuss foreign policy with Trump, announced that Trump had told him that “there is a military option to destroy … North Korea itself.” Another GOP senator, Jim Risch of Idaho, reported that Trump was prepared to start a “very, very brief” war with North Korea that would be “one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization. The end of it is going to see mass casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen. It will be of biblical proportions.”
During this period, the U.S. may have veered close to accidental nuclear war with North Korea several times. In a recent book, Van Jackson, an arms control expert and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, points out three occasions when both inaccurate and accurate news likely made a U.S. attack seem imminent to North Korea.
In September 2017, fake text and Facebook messages told Americans in South Korea that the U.S. government was ordering them to evacuate. In October, the outlet Defense One reported that the Air Force was preparing to put nuclear-capable B-52 bombers on 24-hour alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The article noted that defense officials “stressed that the alert order had not been given,” but this did not prevent other outlets from picking up the story and stating that U.S. bombers had in fact been put on alert. (In response, U.S. Strategic Command said, “There are no discussions or plans for U.S. Strategic Command to place bombers on alert.“) In November, 66 Navy SEALs — exactly who the U.S. would send on a mission to assassinate Kim — did in fact arrive in South Korea. At the time, retired Adm. James Stavridis, who Hillary Clinton considered as a running mate, put the odds of war at 50 percent.
The world is incredibly lucky that Trump has spun 180 degrees and spent the last year becoming bosom friends with Kim. Why he decided to do this is unknown; perhaps it’s just the natural instinct of a showman who believes that each new season of TV needs a shocking twist. What we do know is that Trump is extremely dangerous and has surrounded himself with people more dangerous still. The best we can hope for is that the U.S. and North Korea just keep talking and come to an agreement — again, almost any agreement — and this reality series is canceled before humanity stumbles into nuclear war.
Correction: February 28, 2019
An earlier version of this story said Defense One had incorrectly reported that U.S. nuclear-capable bombers were about to be put on 24-hour alert. The story has been corrected to reflect that Defense One reported the Air Force was making preparations to do so but that an alert order had not been issued. A comment from U.S. Strategic Command has also been added.