North Koreans have long suffered brutal rule. Initially under the Japanese (1910-1945), it continues under the Kim family dynasty today.
Representing the family’s third generation, Kim Jong-un, 35, freely continues to execute citizens. His brutality against his own people reveals a window into his soul. Lacking humanity for one’s own people should tell us a great deal about one’s humanity for others.
Pyongyang’s invitation for Kim to meet President Donald Trump in May and Trump’s acceptance marks the first time leaders from both countries will meet. But we must understand why the invitation was extended.
Relations between the two countries have been rocky ever since a 1953 armistice ended Korean War hostilities, but never ended North Korean aggression.
The Kim family has mastered an ebb and flow of aggression as needed to achieve its agenda — one that, over the past few decades, grew to include a nuclear arsenal. This successful mastery left no reason for any Kim to meet with an American president.
No face-to-face meeting occurred even after President Bill Clinton announced his 1994 “Agreed Framework” nuclear deal would end Pyongyang’s program. The North Korean leadership determined one was not necessary, as it had lulled the U.S. into a false sense of security about its termination, later totally violating the agreement.
Pyongyang now requests a face-to-face meeting for one simple reason.
The Kims’ manipulation of American presidents earlier had given their nuclear program a green light, as a distracted President George W. Bush focused on Islamic terrorism and President Barack Obama was distracted by his own naivete.
But, for the North Koreans, Trump is an enigma. They sense America’s green light has now shifted to yellow, raising concerns it could eventually turn red — leading to military action. Thus, an element appears in North Korea’s nuclear arms decision-making equation it never previously faced: the “Pucker Factor.”
Even in initiating the 1950 Korean War, Pyongyang knew the Soviets and Chinese had its back. But possible U.S. military action against a North Korea demonstrating little rationality leaves it much more isolated today.
Kim Jong-un recognizes he has walked himself out on a limb. He will now use every trick in the book to improve his situation while struggling not to lose face with his military. Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) emphasizes the Pucker Factor by warning the North Korean dictator not to try to play Trump for a chump or “it will be the end of you, and your regime.”
An important indicator as to whether this meeting holds more importance for Trump or Kim will be revealed by its location.
Three generations of Kims have been reluctant to travel outside their “comfort zone” to meet foreign leaders. While two summit meetings were held with South Korean presidents, both took place, at North Korean insistence, in Pyongyang. In meeting with Russian and Chinese presidents, the Kims usually traveled to those two bordering countries.
While Kim understands the proverb, “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain,” he perceives himself as the “mountain” and Trump as Muhammad. Hopefully, Trump will reject any North Korean insistence the meeting be held within Kim’s comfort zone. Meanwhile, obviously, Pyongyang will want to avoid meeting in the U.S. or South Korea.
Thus, Trump must demand a meeting on neutral territory, one located outside of Asia. Any meeting requiring Trump’s travel to Kim’s Asian backyard will be propagandized as a “win” for Kim. It will be translated by North Koreans as proving the meeting is of more importance to Trump politically than to Kim.
To better understand this Asian-Western negotiating mindset dichotomy, one need only revisit procedural issues that preceded peace negotiations held at the end of our last two wars in Asia: Korea and Vietnam.
North Korea looks to a face-to-face Trump meeting as a positive step in its current propaganda campaign, one that began with its decision to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. That decision cost Pyongyang nothing of substance — neither politically nor financially (Seoul picked up Pyongyang’s $2.6 million tab for food and lodging). Meanwhile, Pyongyang began the process again of lulling critics into a false sense of security that it seeks a peaceful resolution to ease peninsula tensions.
While Trump critics suggest it is wrong to grant Kim a meeting without lower-level diplomats first meeting to establish any discussion’s ground rules, Trump’s doing so eliminates Pyongyang’s typical goal of “buying time” by drawing negotiations out.
This meeting is important for Pyongyang as it also seeks to divide and conquer: while the U.S. may be committed to using military force to stop its nuclear program, South Korea’s Neville Chamberlainesque government seeks “peace in our time” — regardless of price. North Korea will play these two opposing positions against each other.
In meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump cannot grant Pyongyang the type of deal it now demands — one similar to Obama’s Iran agreement. Three years after that deal was negotiated, Tehran now presents a much greater nuclear threat to the world community.
In 1945, the U.S. sought to end a war with Japan dropping an atomic bomb dubbed “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. But Japan’s refusal to an unconditional surrender necessitated a second bomb be dropped, one dubbed “Fat Man,” on the city of Nagasaki.
Ironically, today, the U.S. confronts North Korea’s “Fat Man” — a leader committed to possessing nuclear bombs with even greater destructive power. Japan recognizes this destructive power, even refusing, to this day, to allow the U.S. to bring them into its territory absent a threat to its own security.
Having grown up isolated from the realities of warfare — perhaps the closest he came to military service was a photo of him as a child in uniform saluting — North Korea’s irrational Fat Man lacks a humanitarian’s appreciation for the destruction warfare creates. However, with the Pucker Factor now in play, Kim personally is privy to a feeling only previously experienced by people under his rule.
Hopefully, Trump will maximize the Pucker Factor’s play, not just demanding Pyongyang destroy its nuclear program but guaranteeing it happens as well.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.