What can be done when two nations’ leaders have very similar personality traits, do not like each other, have nuclear weapons, are headed for what appears to be inevitable conflict, and neither are inclined to back down? The answer is to find a way that both of them can declare victory without losing face, with each being able to look themselves in the mirror and honestly say he has won. This is of course no easy task, but, fortunately, both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un have strong negotiating positions, and neither appear to want to start a war, so there should be a way for both of them to be able to find some common ground.
Mr. Kim will not stop rattling his saber, he has already proven that North Korea has ICBM launch capability, and soon enough, it will have the ability to fit a nuclear warhead on top of its missiles. In response, Mr. Trump will not stop saying there will be grave consequences, but no matter how hard he tries, China is not likely to change its tune toward Pyongyang and the idea of multilateral negotiations is unlikely to go anywhere. Kim has the military advantage because of his (apparent) willingness to risk annihilation if attacked. Like all those U.S. presidents before him since the end of the Korean War, Trump will not launch a first strike against North Korea because the price is simply too high.
There is no need to engage in too much geopolitical strategizing, intelligence analysis, weapons capability calculations, and predictions about the future ― what we have is an old-fashioned stalemate. If that was not the case, something contrary to the status quo would have occurred many years ago. To figure out what needs to be done in order to move away from one minute to midnight, look no further than a common desire to find a middle ground and arrive at a hand shake.
That may sound like a tall order, and indeed, it is, but consider what each side wants. Kim wants respect, money, the ability to keep his nuclear weapons and missile programs, and a promise that the West will never attack his country or assassinate him. Chances are good that, short of an attack on North Korea, he can keep his weapons and stay alive, so why not admit it? That being the case, why bother engaging in some long, drawn out multilateral negotiation to freeze Kim’s weapons programs in return for cash, which have historically been proven to fail. Such a negotiation will only fail again, since Kim cannot keep his word or resist the urge to cheat.
Trump (and the West) ultimately want Kim to stop being belligerent, threatening nuclear annihilation, pestering his neighbors, waging cyberattacks, and engaging in illicit means of raising money. In calling a spade a spade, the West should admit that there is really no way to stop Kim from doing what he is doing, and suggest that Kim and Trump meet mano a mano at a spot of Kim’s choosing. Neither China, South Korea, Japan nor any other nation would be involved – just the two macho men.
Trump would offer to leave Kim alone, admit that he has a right defend his nation, and offer to give him a bunch of money, end sanctions, and respect him in the future. In return, Kim would agree to stop acting like a petulant child, fire his missiles only away from land (and into international waters), cease threatening his neighbors, find legal ways to earn money, and stop waging cyberattacks. Should the two leaders reach an agreement, Kim can then negotiate separately with each of the other nations. Given that the biggest perceived obstacle to peace from Kim’s perspective is the U.S., if he can reach an agreement with Trump, doing so with the other countries should be somewhat easier. None of them want a military conflict, and the stakes are higher for them than the U.S.
Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But what other alternatives are there, really? Rather than spending any more time and resources devoted to alternative approaches that have either proven not to work, or are unlikely to work in the future, what is there to lose by breaking the mold? In the meantime, the U.S. and it allies should get to work on creating an anti-missile shield system that will actually work against Kim’s arsenal. While they are at it, they should also figure out a way to take out the two satellites North Korea has orbiting the Earth, which may be capable of launching an electromagnetic pulse attack. There is much to do, and so little time.
Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Risk Solutions at Risk Cooperative and is writing a new book on cyberterrorism.