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Op-Ed: Kim Jong Un will never get a better deal

Then CIA Director Mike Pompeo and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un shake hands in North Korea. (White House)
May 22, 2018

As the clock winds down to the U.S.-North Korea Summit on June 12 in Singapore, Kim Jong Un would be wise to accept President Trump’s terms for peace on the Korean Peninsula. That’s because he’ll never get a better deal.

While Trump has been the toughest American president on North Korea since Harry Truman during the 1950s Korean War, paradoxically he’s also the most eager to negotiate and escape the status quo.

One on hand, Trump boldly threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” taunted Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” and “short and fat,” while declaring he was “on a suicide mission.” And he’s backed up tough talk by spearheading international punishing sanctions that even the Chinese and Russians reluctantly agreed to at the United Nations.

Yet on the other hand, Trump has called him “very honorable.” And his campaign statements showed deep frustration with the lack of burden sharing from our allies – including in Asia. Putting it bluntly, he ran on a pledge to “Make America Great Again” – not Make South Korea and Japan Great Again. A self-made billionaire entrepreneur who understands dollars and cents, he knew that America wasn’t necessarily getting a good deal in defending South Korea and Japan these days. The math backed up his intuition. Even as the U.S. was $20 trillion in debt, we’re running massive trade deficits with top allies reaping the benefits of our defense spending.

When quizzed by a condescending Washington Post editorial board during the campaign in March 2016, one editor tried to school him on national security by noting that South Korea and Japan already pay “50 percent” of the basing costs for U.S. troops. A natural fighter, Trump shot back: “Why don’t they pay 100 percent?”

Trump doubled down a few days later, suggesting to a similarly smug NY Times editorial board that he was open to South Korea and Japan having their own nuclear weapons. Besides noting that the U.S. can’t be the “policeman of the world,” he also remarked: “Would I rather have North Korea have them (nuclear weapons) with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”

That was the same month I joined the Trump Campaign as a Foreign Policy & National Security Advisor, which quickly turned into my full-time staff position as the Director, National Security.

Trump’s comments on South Korea and Japan made headlines because they were far out of the mainstream for Republicans and most Democrats. Though I hadn’t advocated for those specific positions, as a career Naval Officer who spent two years based in Japan and three at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, I realized that Trump was voicing legitimate concerns that Americans, Koreans and Japanese needed to hear and evaluate.

That’s because besides living in Japan, I had visited South Korea a dozen times – from the DMZ down to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. I’d worked closely with their respective armed forces too, both world class.

In truth, America has already spent the last 60 to 70 years making South Korea and Japan great again. From near complete destruction during the Korean War and WWII – wars America didn’t start – they are now two of the world’s richest countries. It’s visible in their ultra-modern cities and first-rate airports, railways and highways. Meanwhile, American cities and infrastructure continue to crumble. Anyone who has visited cash-strapped rust-belt cities like Detroit know what I mean.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s power relative to South Korea has been in decline for decades as Seoul gets richer and stronger, thanks to American taxpayers and consumers. Though Pyongyang would lose a conventional war at high cost to both sides, the American alliance isn’t actually the regime’s greatest threat. Despite the fact, according to South Korean intelligence, Kim Jong Un reportedly fears a “decapitation operation” by Navy SEALs, he knows a coup from his generals and/or internal state collapse is more likely. Thus, to project strength and therefore ability to survive, he’s kept the anti-U.S. propaganda at full blast, underwritten by advancements in his nuclear and missile programs to maintain legitimacy to rule.

Yet with an unpredictable, potentially aggressive Trump, Kim Jong Un is smart to seek off-ramps to historically high tensions. While Trump could very well deliver the “fire and fury,” he’s equally likely to simply leave North Korea alone if and when the regime meets his conditions for peace. Both sides could then declare a victory, ushering in a win-win for Americans and Koreans.  As the President likes to say, “We’ll see what happens.”

J.D. Gordon is a former Pentagon spokesman, 2005-2009, and a retired Navy Commander. He has served as a full-time Senior National Security & Foreign Policy Advisor to Republican Presidential Candidates Donald Trump, former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain. 

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