The Americans can conjure all the formulae imaginable for inducing the North Koreans to do away with their nuclear program, but it's not going to happen. Kim Jong-un needs it too much to bolster the image of his power at home and abroad, and he knows very well that his buddy in the White House is not going to go to war to get him to give up a thing.
That reality begs the question, should we just accept the fact that North Korea has its nukes and missiles and that's that? Without saying so, isn't that what we've really been doing for years? No one really believed U.S. military moves, including intimidation by bombers flying up from Guam and war games featuring an "assassination" of the leader, would ever go beyond the make-believe stage.
North Korea's latest rhetoric is keyed to the implicit understanding that the U.S. is not going to initiate Korean War II just to get rid of the annoyance of Pyongyang's nuclear program. The new North Korean negotiator, Kim Myong-gil, probably did not present any serious proposal at all when he saw U.S. negotiator Stephen Biegun in Stockholm the other day.
All he did was listen, in the view of Evans Revere, former senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul and then on the Korea desk of the State Department. Finally, after Biegun had been blathering on for eight hours and thirty minutes, Kim figured he'd had enough. The Americans weren't quite ready to give up sanctions while Kim stuck tenaciously to his nukes and missiles.
One wonders if Kim Myong-gil, who helped negotiate the 1994 Geneva framework under which the North Koreans did suspend their nuclear program under the supervision of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, was periodically on the line to Pyongyang during the latest talks. He may well have been getting guidance by phone from the foreign ministry, perhaps First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, known for yielding nothing in meetings with a string of American visitors, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
None of the yakking has a prayer of working, as Kim Myong-gil presumably is well aware, unless or until the Americans come up with a scheme that would amount to capitulation to North Korea. That goal may not be so far-fetched. The Americans pulled out of South Vietnam in 1973, two years before the North Vietnamese stormed victoriously into Saigon.
North Korean strategists are counting on Trump and others around him to tire of the endless state of war on the Korean peninsula. Wasn't Trump hinting at "Korea fatigue" every time he declared what a great deal he'd gotten with Kim Jong-un? If only his subordinates fine-tuned the details, the North Korean problem would be history.
Kim Myong-gil, who has also dealt with Americans while serving as ambassador at the United Nations, had only to sit back and listen as Biegun rattled off alternatives. They all came down to the bottom line, eventually, somehow, some day the North Korea had to emerge nuclear-free from the miasma of the current talks.
That done, as Trump has said more than once, the North would be the beneficiaries of about all the American aid and advice they wanted.
The North Korean negotiating style was obvious. Having listened to all the gibberish Biegun had to offer, they could say nothing doing. Then the Americans might come up with real concessions. That might still happen. Let's take a break from overly familiar sights and sounds, the North Koreas might be saying. Maybe the dramatic ending of the talks on Saturday was a ploy to lure the Americans back for more.
Just imagine, though, the chorus of abuse, the catcalls and insults, Trump would have to endure if he made a weak deal with the North Koreans, gave up sanctions and fell for a phony "end-of-war" declaration in the midst of impeachment hearings against him.
Sure, in theory he'd like to sit down again with Kim, but such a gesture would be pointless if it rebounded against him while he was about to be impeached by the lower house, the House of Representatives. Could it be that the U.S. Senate might approve the impeachment and send Trump packing?
The future of anything to do with Korea is always hard to predict, but Trump must like the numbers he's getting ― in the U.S., unemployment way down, in Korea, President Moon Jae-in's approval sinking to new lows. Maybe Vice President Mike Pence won't need to figure out what's going on after all.
Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering war and peace in the region for decades.