Peace in Our Time on the Korean Peninsula?
South Korean officials declared that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is prepared to negotiate with the United States over denuclearizing the peninsula and normalizing relations. President Donald Trump declared his policy is working.
The first is good news, if true. But even if true, it is merely the first step to achieving a stable peace in Northeast Asia.
The second probably is not true. Any talks are likely to be conducted on North Korea’s rather than America’s terms. Almost certainly Pyongyang will still possess its current arsenal of twenty or more nuclear weapons when this year comes to a close. And the next year as well.
The South Koreans who met with Kim and his officials suggest that peace is in the air. The DPRK wants dialogue and is prepared to denuclearize. Just a few steps further and the lion will lie down with the lamb, ending more than seventy years of intra-Korean conflict.
However, so far, Kim Jong-un has not spoken. It is obvious what visiting South Koreans wanted to hear. Kim may have told them what they wanted to hear. But what will he say to the world, and especially the United States? Just after Seoul’s announcement the Workers’ Party of Korea official newspaper justified Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons. “The peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the world have been secured thanks to our strengthening of nuclear deterrence,” declared the Rodung Sinmun. Maybe that just indicates that Pyongyang intends to strike a hard bargain. But even that is an important corrective to optimistic assessments of DPRK policy. We won’t really know the North’s position until North Korea’s Supreme Leader responds.
Moreover, there’s nothing particularly new in Pyongyang’s presumed offer. In the past North Korea has engaged the United States in a dialogue over denuclearization. But that did not mean the North was willing to abandon its weapons—or at least to do so in return for what Washington was willing to give. The reason there have been no recent talks, whatever back channel communication might have occurred, is because the Trump administration insisted that the North agree to the main contested issue beforehand: denuclearization.
Indicating a theoretical willingness to disarm is not the same. When I visited Pyongyang last year North Korean officials told me they were willing to consider yielding up their weapons if the United States, China, Russia and other nuclear states did likewise. Under these conditions the willingness to denuclearize is theoretical only.
Now the DPRK apparently says it wants sufficient security guarantees. What would they be? Pyongyang might, and seems likely to, demand far more than what Washington is willing to give. In the past the North demanded that America end the alliance with the Republic of Korea and withdraw U.S. troops from the region. Perhaps there will be other conditions as well.
This would not be simple duplicity, though North Korea obviously is capable of such. And using negotiations to divide Washington and Seoul and gain time to continue missile and nuclear development are time-honored DPRK strategies.
Nevertheless, what rational dictator on Washington’s naughty list would trust the Trump administration and its successors? Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took out or forced out nearby regimes not to America’s liking. President George W. Bush ventured further afield, forcing regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, targeting the DPRK as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and announcing that he “loathed” the North’s ruler, Kim Jong-il.
President Barack Obama engineered the ouster of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi after the latter negotiated away his nuclear weapons and missiles. The Obama administration also spent several years unsuccessfully attempting to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. President Donald Trump has repudiated the agreement reached between his predecessor and Iran, dismissed the diplomatic efforts of his secretary of state, and threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North. Only nuclear weapons seem capable of deterring this type of aggression from a future U.S. president. Kim is unlikely to accept expressions of good will and paper guarantees as sufficient to abandon the weapons that his nation has worked so hard to develop.
Finally, Pyongyang long desired talks with America, but without preconditions. The North Koreans reportedly told their ROK counterparts that they simply “wanted to be treated like a serious dialogue partner.” It appears that Pyongyang has simply repackaged a long-standing objective—being treated with respect by the globe’s superpower.
Will the Trump administration agree? Discussions between the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan impend, and an anonymous Trump administration official insisted that Washington’s policy “will not change until we see credible moves toward denuclearization.” He also dismissed entering into talks encumbered by “non-starter conditions” by the DPRK as in the past. However, the North is a good enough negotiator not to abandon its leverage without receiving anything in return. And it can simply move its conditions one step back, from agreeing to negotiate to agreeing to disarm.