It’s strange to think of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a reliable source when it comes to geopolitical analysis. Yet when Putin talked about the US-North Korea nuclear standoff in a press conference on Thursday night, his assessment of the situation matched far more closely with what you hear from US experts on North Korea than anything that the Trump administration has said.
Putin’s core point is that the central strategy of US policy under Trump, Obama, and Bush — attempting to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear program — has now conclusively failed. North Korea now believes that its nuclear arsenal is its best deterrent against an American invasion, and hence will not give it up no matter how much the United States tries to push them.
“They see nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction as the only way for them to protect themselves,” the Russian president said during the Thursday presser, held at an economic forum in Vladivostok, Russia.
That isn’t the Trump administration’s view. Just this week, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley called for “the strongest sanctions” to pressure North Korea into giving up nukes “before it’s too late.” Yet the consensus position among America’s North Korea experts is that it is, in fact, too late: that nothing the US can do to Kim Jong Un could offset the deterrent value of his nuclear weapons.
“There is very little chance that we are ever going to talk this guy out of his weapons, and none of us who have been watching the situation closely for years really thought we were going to,” as Mira Rapp-Hooper, a scholar at Yale Law School who studies North Korea, put when I spoke to her this week.
Putin also noted that harsh American rhetoric — like Trump’s promise to respond to inflict “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on the North — serves only to escalate the situation. “It’s counterproductive to inflate this military hysteria. This leads nowhere,” he said.
This, once again, dovetails with what American experts told me in interviews. They believe that threats tend to inflame the North’s fears of invasion, causing them to respond with provocations and further development of their nuclear program.
“They’re responding to our threats, it’s tit-for-tat,” Dave Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, says. “Our policies are designed precisely to provoke the outcome we’re trying to avoid.”
Finally, Putin argued that the best way to handle the nuclear crisis going forward is through negotiations — for the US and North Korea to develop better lines of communication in order to avoid a crisis escalating into a war that no one wants.
“All the competing sides have enough common sense and understanding of their responsibility. We can solve this problem through diplomatic means,” the Russian president said.
If you guessed that this is what most North Korea experts believe, then congratulations, you’ve got the pattern.
“This is one of those areas where we should be able to have negotiation because 1) we don’t want a nuclear war, and 2) North Korea shares that interest,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me. The US should, he says, “talk to [the North] about stability, about crisis coordination.”
Again, this does not prove that Vladimir Putin is some kind of genius about international affairs. It certainly does not wipe away the violence perpetrated by his government in places like Ukraine and Syria.
What it does show, though, is that the United States has somehow managed to back itself into a pretty obvious corner. The aim of denuclearizing North Korea is mostly out of reach, which is tough to admit when America has spent decades warning of the consequences of Pyongyang’s program. Conceding defeat is very hard for anyone, and especially hard for people making policy for the world’s most powerful country.
But it might be necessary. Pronouncements like Trump’s and Haley’s just makethe US look out of touch with reality — and cede the most reasonable-sounding policy ground to Putin, of all people.