Trump Sees North Korea as a Sales Tool. That Doesn't Matter.

Thomas O. Falk
October 10, 2018

Facing a potential 'blue wave' in the midterm elections, US President Donald Trump is looking to bolster his résumé to turn out Republican voters. Trumpeting a potential peace deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un seems to be his latest gambit.

The president has made some progress. Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo met with Kim over the weekend and secured two promises: international inspectors will be allowed to monitor the dismantling of the Sohae rocket engine test facility on the nation's west coast, and visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Trump has also confirmed he will attend a second summit with Kim after the elections.

However, North Korea is notoriously deceptive and has reneged on deals in the past, meaning any agreements should be taken with a large dose of salt. Kim will also be aware of the leverage he holds over the president ahead of the midterms, and Trump's desire to be seen as the dealmaker who foregoes conventional diplomacy yes still gets things done. Kim - who won't have forgotten the childish insults that Trump directed at him earlier this year - will seek to take full advantage and extract significant concessions.

The two leaders are alike in several ways: they're narcissistic and rely on hyperbole and falsehoods to rally support. Both can benefit from a deal: Trump can make himself look good, while Kim could potentially lift harsh economic sanctions against his country. Kim seems more interested than his father and grandfather in growing North Korea's economy and improving the living standards of its people - he has authorised hundreds of private markets, invested in infrastructure and modestly improved healthcare and education services since taking the nation's reins in 2010.

Kim's promises have given Trump something to sell to voters, but lasting change will have to wait until after the elections. If North Korea's leader makes genuine concessions at the summit, such as agreeing to provide a complete inventory of the nation's weapons and facilities and permanently scrapping its nuclear programme, Trump could lift sanctions and push to replace the ceasefire at the nation's border with South Korea with a permanent peace agreement. Doing so would allow Kim to shrink his military, freeing up food and other resources for civilians and enabling North Korean men - currently locked into 10 years of compulsory military service - to work in more productive industries. Dropping sanctions would also allow aid and imports to flow into the country and exports to flow out, accelerating its development and escape from poverty.

There's a big risk that North Korea fails to hold up its end of any bargain, and its deep-rooted issues will prevent an overnight transformation. Trump will also be more concerned with the optics of a deal than the details. But if he somehow convinces Kim to dismantle his nuclear programme and successfully opens up North Korea, he can rightfully crow about his achievement.