Fooled by North Korea
May 1, 2018 | To an uninitiated observer of developments on the Korean peninsula who has managed to avoid the history books, last week’s meeting between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae In, might appear as a critical juncture that rightfully exudes hope for a peaceful resolution of the sixty-five-year-old conflict. Indeed, to see the two Korean leaders exchange smiles and hold each other’s hand would seem scarcely imaginable only months ago. For anybody who has been paying attention however, the latest diplomatic overture from the hermit kingdom resembles a page from an old playbook—one in which the last Stalinist regime in the world first escalates and brings the peninsula to the precipice of a nuclear war and then offers olive branches only to repeat the cycle a few years later.
The scenes we are now witnessing are, save for the theatrical talent of North Korea’s current dictator, remarkably similar to those observed in the early 1990s and mid-2000s. In 1994, the Clinton administration signed an agreement in which North Korea agreed to freeze all of its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors and to follow the international consensus on nuclear non-proliferation. By the early 2000s, the North Koreans reneged on the agreement. A few years later, this time during George W. Bush’s presidency, Kim Jong Un’s father promised to cease attempts to build nuclear weapons in addition to abandoning his nuclear programs. As soon as 2006, the North Koreans were testing a nuclear bomb again.
It is thus mildly surprising that wide segments of the world’s punditry and, above all, many political leaders take more than a few moments to realize the inevitable: Kim Jong Un is following in the footsteps of his father, skillfully combining threats of nuclear annihilation with hints of de-escalation. Those that are willing to give Kim the benefit of the doubt this time usually advance what seems as a sensible argument at first: given that the other option is a potentially devastating war, talking to North Korea, even if such talks are about the weather, is better than nothing. I hasten to argue that talking to North Korea without a clear and pre-negotiated course of action which would require the North Koreans to take verifiable steps before they are invited to talks involves significant costs.
First, every photo opportunity with a Western leader that Kim Jong Un gets legitimizes him on the world stage and at home. Every handshake and smile that is shared with the dictator clouds the undeniable truth: North Korea under Kim’s rule is one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever seen and Kim himself is responsible for many deaths, including that of his own uncle and half-brother. Celebrating the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics as well as the hopeful coverage which has characterized last week’s summit meeting contributes to a contagious myth, an almost Lennonist belief that the peninsula’s woes could be solved if only people were able to discover their better selves and focused on what unites them rather than what divides them. The hard truth is, of course, that there is no better part to North Korea. Dictatorships do not die of old age, they perish because those who desire freedom refuse to give up. The North Korean people will not be freed until, one day, the regime is overthrown and its crimes fully exposed.
Second, agreeing to engage with the evil regime before eliciting clear, far-reaching action amounts to giving up important bargaining chips. Speaking faster than developing a careful strategy, the U.S. president granted Kim Jong Un a win simply by agreeing to meet with him. Even if the meeting comes to naught, Kim will be able to claim that he at least tried and President Donald Trump will feel the pressure to bring something home. Although Trump now claims that he will walk out of the meeting whenever he feels that nothing is being accomplished, one should not attend a meeting where the chances of reasonable progress are exceedingly low. If the president gives an inch simply to assure that the meeting is not a complete failure, he will only multiply North Korea’s payoff.
Finally, South Korea’s understandable willingness to engage the North has already started to result in a situation in which the South’s position differs from that of the United States. Splitting the U.S.-South Korean alliance is, one need not add, Kim Jong Un’s dream. By inserting ever more daylight between Seoul and Washington, Pyongyang not only increases the likelihood that it can get away with nuclear missiles, it also raises the chance that the South will become more vulnerable to Pyongyang’s potential aggression.
It is unlikely that the economic pressure the global community has put on North Korea has suddenly started to bite to such an extent that Kim Jong Un felt the need to act. Only a few months have passed since Kim Jong-un flaunted his nuclear button. Although increasing international pressure and Trump in the White House have undoubtedly played a role, the most likely reason why the North’s behavior is changing is because it has probably achieved what it long wanted—a nuclear arsenal. By offering any kind of concessions before the North degrades its nuclear capability, the international community would fulfill the regime’s objective—it would leave it stronger than before with lesser economic pain.
It is a correct conclusion that up until now, the real choice that the international community with the United States at its helm has faced has been that between a nuclear-armed North Korea and a potentially devastating conflict. Giving Kim Jong Un any benefit of the doubt, however, risks an even worse outcome: a fully nuclear North Korea, a clear display of Western diplomatic ineptitude, and a split in one of the most important alliances in the region.
Vladimir Chlouba is a PhD student of political science at the Ohio State University.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by Cheongwadae / Blue House with a KOGL Type 1 license.