Nearly a year ago to the day, I sat down with a senior Pentagon official at a coffee shop near Dupont Circle. I asked him where he thought the North Korea crisis would go next. Pyongyang had just detonated a hydrogen bomb earlier in the month, an event that was still fresh in our minds.
“War. Make that a nuclear war,” the official said. “One-hundred percent. Millions are going to die. And our world will never be the same.”
I nearly spit my coffee out.
I wasn’t reacting to his dire prediction, though it was scary for sure. I was reacting because I agreed with him—100 percent.
As someone who has obsessed over every missile launch, nuclear test, and crazy statement coming out of North Korea over the last few years, I knew Washington and Pyongyang were slowly but surely headed for a showdown last year. All it would take was one false move along the Demilitarized Zone, one soldier dropping his rifle and discharging one bullet, and events could be set in motion that might ultimately lead to the release of not only nukes but also chemical and biological weapons. And as someone who has done countless simulations exploring what a second Korean War would look like, I knew all too well that the body counts would be unimaginable—perhaps 8 million or more.
And then 2018 happened. From a peaceful Olympics in South Korea to three summits between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the North to three more summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un to the historic meeting between Kim and President Trump, tensions have dropped considerably. We’ve now reached the point where many believe that an end to the Korean War and the north’s full denuclearization are possible.
With a fragile detente on the Korean Peninsula taking hold, my own views on the North Korea issue have, shall we say, evolved. Thanks to a recent trip to Seoul where I was able to witness the Inter-Korea Summit between Chairman Kim and President Moon, I truly believe that there is a strong possibility for a breakthrough. While it won’t be easy, and everything could still fall apart as has happened many times in the past, history shows us that certain actions, sometimes those that look downright idealistic or even crazy, may be rewarded.
Now is the time for those bold actions. There is one way, however crazy it may seem, to lock in the gains of the last few months and transform the dynamic on the peninsula in such a way that we may be able to create the so-called “peace regime” many of the players in Northeast Asia are looking for.
It’s time to send President Donald J. Trump to Pyongyang.
While that might seem a little premature and perhaps a little unhinged, follow my logic for a moment.
First, such an idea has been floated in the past—and not even by this administration. Back in 2000, then-secretary of state Madeline Albright went to North Korea to meet with then-leader Kim Jong-il to potentially set up an even bigger summit: between Kim and President Bill Clinton.
We should also consider the fact that Trump does not follow any of the conventions of traditional foreign policy thinking. He goes with his gut, and he loves to make a splash, dominating the media cycle every moment that he can, to the point that he even told a recent rally in West Virginia that he and Kim “fell in love,” knowing it would send the media into a tailspin. And nothing would dominate cable news more than Trump’s motorcade going through the streets of Pyongyang, where ICBMs custom-built to strike America traveled down the boulevard just last year.
Then there is the reality that Trump’s North Korea policy is unsustainable, something Trump himself likely understands. Shaking hands with Kim in Singapore back in June was interpreted as a signal to nations around Asia that U.S. policy towards the north is changing, and that while sanctions evasion won’t be encouraged, it won’t spark armed conflict either. Many are now beginning to take advantage of this. When you factor in the brewing U.S.-China trade war and the fact that 90 percent of all of North Korean exports go through Beijing one way or another, China will likely forget about any cooperation with the Trump administration on the north. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the idea was suspect all along, especially when you consider China’s nearly unstoppable ability to control crude flows into the North. Considering these points together, one sees that maximum pressure is dead and buried.
So let’s suppose Trump wanted to swing in the other direction and embrace a maximum engagement strategy with the North. Here is what he should do: first, propose a summit in Pyongyang with Moon and Kim. There, in historic fashion, sign a peace declaration ending the Korean War once and for all. In exchange, Kim would make a big move showing his commitment towards denuclearization, say, with the closing of the Yongbyon nuclear facility or a listing of the North’s nuclear and missile assets.
From there, a slow but steady process would begin where the Kim regime would be rewarded for all moves towards ending its nuclear and missile programs, with America and its allies dropping sanctions in a reciprocal fashion. Values would be placed on warheads, missiles, fissile materials, facilities, and so on. This could be done over an agreed upon time as quickly or as slowly as need be. The North would also be rewarded with two big things it has sought for some time: the opening of interest sections by America and North Korea and embassies after Pyongyang gives up one nuclear weapon and half of its total arsenal, respectively.
For Trump, the time to head to Pyongyang is now. With a Supreme Court nomination fight still heating up and midterms just over the horizon, the president could use a historic win before America head to the polls—especially if Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination goes up in flames.
It’s time to make history once again, Mr. President, and show that the Singapore Summit was no fluke. Time to fuel up Air Force One and head to North Korea, ensuring the status quo with the Kims is shattered forever.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm The National Interest. Previously, he led the foreign policy communications efforts of the Heritage Foundation, and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.