- - Tuesday, May 8, 2018


As Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un shook hands at the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea, the leaders from those two nations took an important step toward what may bring a historic, formal end to the Korean War and perhaps denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The great news for Americans, however, is that regardless of any outcome, our overwhelming conventional and nuclear deterrent will always keep us safe.

At the summit, there were reasons for both optimism and pessimism. On the positive side, in contrast to a series of threats and nuclear and ICBM tests, Mr. Kim has offered a long series of unprecedented positive statements and promises.

On Jan. 1, Mr. Kim wished his southern neighbors a peaceful 2018 and agreed to send a team to the Pyeongchang Olympics. He then offered to meet Mr. Moon — on the South Korean side of the DMZ — to discuss denuclearization and meet with President Trump. Last week, Mr. Kim committed to shuttering his (collapsing) nuclear test site in full view of the international community.

At the conclusion of the 2018 inter-Korean summit, both sides agreed to “alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula” and “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”

Those promises, however, are eerily similar to those made in 1992, 2000 and 2005, and that exposes the risk of being too optimistic. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Mr. Kim is orchestrating an elaborate ruse whereby he is carefully crating a public and international image of being a responsible leader to garner global support — but is not planning to back up the promises with concrete actions.

Mr. Kim’s state visit to Beijing in early April, the great pomp and circumstance of the summit at the DMZ, and the upcoming summit with President Trump project very positive images and give the impression of normal statecraft. These actions seek to bury the authoritarian image of the “Hermit Kingdom” and the specter of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans locked in concentration-like labor camps.

Most important for American audiences, however, is what this means for U.S. policy going forward and for Mr. Trump’s planned summit with Mr. Kim in the coming months.

In terms of what really exists on the ground — and the significance of all this for American security and prosperity — is that beyond the positive images and optimistic statements, nothing of substance has actually changed.

No actions have been taken by either side. There are still reportedly approximately 60 nuclear warheads in the North Korean inventory and plenty of short-, medium-, and long-range missiles. Pyongyang still has a one-million-man active army, and Seoul still has its modern army and powerful air force staring them down from their side of the border — and it’s meaningful to note the South Korean military is far superior qualitatively and quantitatively to its northern neighbor.

For peace to truly come to Korea, North Korea will eventually have to match its positive rhetoric with irreversible deeds. For the sake of the citizens on both sides of the border, the Americans living in South Korea, and our Japanese allies nearby, I hope that is exactly what happens. American policy, however, must take a realistic view of things and not get too caught up in the emotion or deflected by the optics of the moment.

To fully safeguard and benefit the American people, Mr. Trump should go into his summit with his eyes wide open and with a laser-like focus on U.S. security and prosperity.

First, he should be open to taking the talks wherever they can go and be genuinely willing to give Mr. Kim a chance to make good on his promises. Under the right circumstances, Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon could provide enough assurances to Mr. Kim that over time he might denuclearize, and Mr. Trump should support Mr. Moon to the maximum extent it makes sense to do so, but this would be a long process (and is the most optimistic scenario). That is fine, as time is on our side, not Mr. Kim‘s.

It would be a mistake to assume that outcome isn’t possible and fail to even give it a fair chance. Concurrently, however, it would be a mistake to assume that denuclearization will happen, and thus Mr. Trump should also make clear to all parties that the U.S. remains in the dominant negotiating position by virtue of our overwhelmingly superior conventional and nuclear military capabilities. The U.S. can deter North Korea indefinitely.

The best way to guarantee America’s security and prosperity is to avoid war, and that is precisely what our deterrent achieves. The bottom line for Mr. Trump heading into the planned summit: The status quo, as unsavory as it is, favors the United States, and no war will break out on the Korean Peninsula unless Mr. Trump starts one.

The U.S. will play an important role, as the two Koreas seek peace. But we should do so with a clear view of reality, not be taken in by flashy promises. Above all, we must avoid war to ensure America’s security and prosperity, and that means trusting our powerful military deterrent. Peace through strength.

• Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.

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