North Korea has plenty of weapons

North Korea’s willingness to engage in talks now may be because it built up a large enough weapons arsenal under previous presidents, Wit believes.

George W. Bush dubbed the country part of an “axis of evil” in 2002; it withdrew from the 1994 agreement Wit helped to broker later that year, and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” approach assumed sanctions and diplomacy would eventually bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Instead, North Korea conducted five nuclear tests and launched three medium-range ballistic missiles toward Japan during Obama’s presidency.

“Every country that’s building nuclear weapons…they reach a point in their program where they decide how much is enough,” Wit said. Kim may have decided to “see what other opportunities are out there,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they can’t resume these tests,” he said, and there’s no destruction of any nuclear testing site that is irreversible.

The Hermit Kingdom myth

Trump administration officials may finally be beginning to realize how complex US-North Korea relations are, Wit said, and abandoning the “comic book” narrative that has dominated US thinking on the country.

Each incoming president and administration needs to be educated on the topic, Wit said. Many US officials have bought into what he called the “myths of North Korea,” particularly the idea of an isolated “hermit kingdom” perpetually on the verge of imminent collapse.

“Don’t assume the people doing the educating are always the ones you want doing the educating,” Wit said, in what appeared to be a reference to John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, who is being blamed in some circles for sabotaging the Hanoi summit.

Trump may not be the man to deal with North Korea, and the US may not be the country, Wit conceded. Combine the lack of American understanding, a US habit of trying to use traditional foreign policy solutions to solve a “very untraditional problem,” and the political pitfalls, “it becomes almost impossible to deal with.”

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