Following bilateral talks between the North Korea and South Korea, accompanied by copious joyous photographs of the countries’ respective leaders, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, and ahead of U.S.-DPRK summit, the media and much of the public, inside and outside of South Korea, have reached new heights of peace in our time optimism. Some form of reality check is overdue.
The current mode of inter-Korean détente, of course, began in earnest with the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, in which North Korea athletes not only competed, but did so alongside their counterparts from South Korea under a common flag. Yet this is the same North Korea that orchestrated the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 some 31 years earlier, on the direct orders of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, killing 115 people in an attempt to sabotage the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.
It may be unreasonable to hold the current Kim responsible for the deeds of his grandfather — he was, after all, only a toddler at the time of the jetliner slaughter. Yet the younger Kim seems to share the same affinity for violence as his forebears. Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was executed in a purge in 2013, along with several members of his family. O Sang-hon, a minister in the Ministry of People’s Security, was executed in 2014, reportedly by flamethrower. And, in the current regime’s most recent and brazen attack, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was killed in 2017 by the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. This is the bloody legacy of the man described by U.S. President Donald Trump, on April 24, as “very honorable.”
Temporarily putting aside Kim’s history of violence, why should talks between America and the DPRK not at least be attempted? In the words of Churchill, “better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.” The issue is that meeting Kim, as Trump is scheduled to do in May or June, will confer much credibility on the regime. It is a dangerous endeavor if the agenda, objectives, negotiating points, and risks are not fully understood. To this there can be little optimism, for even the ill-defined term “denuclearization” is now casually thrown about by Trump, as well as by the DPRK and ROK.
What exactly does denuclearization mean? To the United States, it means the surrender of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the dismantling of facilities, IAEA safeguards on fissile material, regular inspections, and the re-entry of the DPRK into the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it left in 2003. Given that one cannot unlearn the knowledge of how to manufacture a nuclear weapon, anything less can only be seen as a disingenuous, dangerous, and inadequate diplomatic fudge.
To North Korea, however, denuclearization means the U.S. abandonment of its policy of maintaining an extended nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan. As U.S. nuclear assets can always be repurposed and retargeted toward the DPRK, such denuclearization amounts to a change in U.S. security policy, rather than the removal and destruction of physical weapons. Clearly, this is something to which the United States can never agree.
Trump tweeted on April 22 that North Korea “have (sic) agreed to denuclearization.” Of course, in reality, it has agreed to no such thing.
What Kim has agreed to, unilaterally, is a suspension of warhead testing. But after six tests, it is open to question whether North Korea needs to test further. India and Pakistan each conducted only six tests, with both countries ending their testing in 1998. It is quite possible Kim has already conducted all the tests he needs to.
At this juncture, it is appropriate to ask if North Korea will ever dismantle its nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the reality is that the security advantage these assets confer makes it virtually inconceivable that they will ever be surrendered as they effectively guarantee the survival of the Kim regime. Furthermore, North Korean thinking is heavily influenced by the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, following Muammar Gaddafi’s ill-fated 2003 decision to abandon his WMD programs.
In fact, the only example of a nuclear power ever disarming is South Africa, which ended its nuclear weapons program in 1989, dismantling its arsenal of six warheads. But South Africa is very much a special case, with the de Klerk government ensuring these weapons were eliminated in the final days of apartheid, prior to political power passing to the ANC. South Africa certainly cannot be looked at as a blueprint given that it was internal political pressure, not external forces, which led to the abandonment of its program.
Even if one were to take an extraordinary leap of optimism in assuming that North Korea will negotiate in good faith, there is also concern as to whether the United States can be trusted. At the same time that Trump is talking about the prospect of a denuclearized and peaceful Korean peninsula, he is preparing to renege on the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, a multilateral diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue that took 12 years to negotiate, despite Iran honoring all of its treaty commitments as verified through IAEA inspections.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, during a visit to the White House on April 24, discussed how he, “would like us to work as from now on a new deal.” In making this statement Macron essentially acted as Trump’s enabler in potentially tearing up the P5+1 deal and inviting an arms race in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni Islam. If the Iranians conclude, if they have not already done so, that a treaty with America (alongside France, the UK, Russia, China, and Germany) is essentially worthless, perhaps the North Koreans will determine likewise.
Finally, there is the logistical angle that surely all but guarantees failure. In the past, nuclear negotiations such as SALT I and II typically included delegations of 100 or more staff from each of the U.S. and Russian sides. The sheer complexity of such agreements is beyond the comprehension of laymen, and potentially of any single individual. If the U.S.-DPRK talks are led by an ill-informed and mercurial Trump, we can hardly be hopeful.
The most likely outcome is that we will essentially end up where we began. North Korea will maintain and perhaps expand its nuclear arsenal, potentially alongside a continuing moratorium on testing, and possibly with a “no first use” pledge. Further silly and unconvincing threats of “fire and fury” will periodically emanate from Trump. And North Korea may receive some relief from sanctions and obtain aid.
In the most optimistic outlook, some normalization of diplomatic relations between North Korea and America and/or North and South Korea may ensue, and a peace treaty between the two Koreas may finally be concluded. And the world will adjust, and grudgingly accept, a nuclear-armed North Korea, as it did in the case of India and Pakistan. Against this, the United States will be shown to have been played and will emerge diplomatically weakened. That said, it seems unlikely that North Korea will spark a nuclear arms race in the Pacific as the primary purpose of its weapons is defensive, to ensure regime survival.
Assuming the P5+1 deal is abandoned in an American “own goal” and if, as expected, the U.S.-DPRK summit does not lead to denuclearization, both Iran and North Korea will then need to be considered serious diplomatic and non-proliferation policy failures. And a subsequent careful post-mortem will be required. For now, however, there are simply too many photo-ops to attend to and too much shared exhilaration for such dangers to be rationally considered.
Yukari Easton is a researcher and an ACE-Nikaido Fellow at the East Asian Studies Center at University of Southern California whose research focus is upon international relations, diplomacy, and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Previously, she worked for ten years in international banking in Europe and Asia.