There’s a highly disturbing story in the New York Times this morning which, if true (and that remains a major “if”) would represent a worrying shift in foreign policy regarding North Korea. Without evidence or any named sources, and despite being expressly denied by multiple officials, the Gray Lady reports that the President is thinking of offering Kim Jong-un the option of a “nuclear freeze” where he could keep his nuclear weapons, but dismantle the North’s ability to create more weapons-grade fissile materials. This would represent a complete reversal of Donald Trump’s position over the course of his presidency.
But for weeks before the meeting, which started as a Twitter offer by the president for Mr. Kim to drop by at the Demilitarized Zone and “say hello,” a real idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that officials hope might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations.
The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.
It falls far short of Mr. Trump’s initial vow 30 months ago to solve the North Korea nuclear problem, but it might provide him with a retort to campaign-season critics who say the North Korean dictator has been playing the American president brilliantly by giving him the visuals he craves while holding back on real concessions.
Allowing North Korea to remain a permanent member of the global nuclear powers club while easing sanctions and effectively normalizing their position on the world stage sounds like one of the worst possible outcomes. If the end of this road finds Kim in possession of all of his warheads and the missiles needed to launch them, then what was the point of all of these sanctions over so many years? I suppose there’s some comfort in the idea that he couldn’t continue to expand his stockpile, but it’s cold comfort indeed. And do we need to be reminded of how many times Kim and his family have lied to the world and broken their promises?
Consider the fact that North Korea was estimated to already have at least 60 nuclear weapons as of last summer. The National Interest featured estimates indicating that they could have more than 100 by the end of next year based on their current rate of production. That’s a lot of nukes to leave laying around in the arsenal of a madman.
But is this report accurate? The paper quotes “a senior United States official involved in North Korean policy” in the article, but even there the quote isn’t related to a freeze. Not only does the Times fail to cite a single administration source for this claim, they specifically include an official response from the State Department’s envoy to North Korea, Stephen E. Biegun. He called this report “pure speculation” and was then quoted as saying, “What is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate.”
Given all of those considerations, there are a few possibilities as to how this story made it into print. The first is that this really is something Trump is considering and has discussed with aides and somebody leaked it. That seems unlikely in the extreme, given Trump’s history on this subject, but if he doesn’t see a path forward I suppose anything is possible. That would be extremely disappointing, however.
Another possibility is that this is an approach somebody inside the administration has been pushing for as a more moderate solution, but they haven’t been able to get Trump to consider it. That person might have leaked it themselves just to try to push the conversation forward.
The other possibility is that somebody close to the President dumped it out there as a trial balloon to see how everyone would react. That’s a safe move because the President could still come out and deny it, killing the story before it gets out of control. All I can say is that you should keep an eye on the President’s Twitter feed. I’m confident he’ll be providing a definitive answer soon enough.