During a meeting with South Korea’s political delegation yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly made clear his willingness for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, if military threats towards the North are cleared and the security of its government is guaranteed. Kim also told the South Korean delegation that he is willing to engage in direct talk with Washington and would halt weapons tests during any negotiations. Both the North and South Korean leaders agreed to hold a summit, the 3rd such summit since the end of the Korean War, in April this year. A hotline between the leaders of the two Koreas will be up and running shortly.
These announcements mark a significant development of the Korean peninsula. Not so long ago, we seemed on the brink of another Korean War and Kim was vowing that his nuclear weapons program was a “treasured sword,” which was not up for negotiation. So what caused this 180 degree change of direction? Is he a changed man now who is eager to seek peace or is he merely repeating his father Kim Jong-il ‘s strategy of using negotiation as a delaying tactic?
Sanctions are Working
There’s strong indication that Kim’s desire to talk is at least partially driven by the impact of economic sanctions. Unlike previous administrations, the Trump administration has pursued a series of economic sanctions aiming to put “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang, by curbing the country’s access to funds and fuel, including naming and shaming Chinese businesses and individuals who assisted North Korea’s illicit trades. China, while still making a half-hearted effort, has done more than it did before to implement many if not all UN sanctions against North Korea. So Pyongyang really feel the economic pain this time around.
The Wall Street Journal reported that according to Chinese government, China’s imports from North Korea dropped by a third in 2017, while Chinese exports to North Korea declined year-on-year every month since July, with oil-product exports falling to almost zero since October 2017. Even though we have every reason to doubt the accuracy of Chinese government’s data, observers at the China-North Korea border point to anecdotal evidence that shows the effect of sanctions: trains to Pyongyang now are often filled with North Korean workers heading home, which curtails an important source of hard currency for the regime. North Korean elites were seen loading up food and other necessities at Chinese markets before heading back to home.
Granted, the Pyongyang regime still finds ways to evade sanctions through cyber theft and illicit weapon trades with the Middle East and Africa. One recent example is that the UN security council disclosed only last week that North Korea has been sending supplies for making chemical weapons to Syria. Still, it’s indisputable that Pyongyang feels the pain of the sanctions and it may be one of the reasons that pushed Kim’s decision to reach out to South Korea right after the New Year.
South Korea’s President is Eager to Talk
However, Kim Jong Un probably wouldn’t have reached out to South Korea at this particular moment unless he found a willing partner in South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae In. As I wrote before, President Moon served as chief presidential secretary to liberal President Roh Moo-hyun (in office from 2003 to 2008). Roh was a firm believer in the “sunshine policy” — softening North Korea’s hostility towards the South by encouraging interaction and economic assistance. Not surprisingly, previous Six Party Talks that aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program through negotiations involving China, the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia, were launched shortly after Roh took office in 2003, while Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong Un’s father, was in charge of North Korea.
Based on the South Korean government’s own analysis, its sunshine policy was a failure. Decades of massive economic aid and peaceful engagement neither bettered the life of the destitute North Koreans, nor slowed Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon development or its hostility towards Seoul. The Six Party Talks eventually fell apart after North Korea’s repeated missile tests and other provocations.
But President Moon seems to believe he can succeed where his former boss failed with the same policy approach. Kim Jong Un probably sized up President Moon’s eagerness for a diplomacy break through and decided to exploit it.
History Shows North Korea is an Untrustworthy Partner
North Korea has proven again and again that it’s an untrustworthy partner. It has often used negotiations as a means to extract economic assistance, while doing little to curb its nuclear weapons development and military buildup. Any signed agreement seems to have little binding power on its own behavior. For example, North Korea has announced that it will no longer abide by the armistice (signed by China, North Korea and the U.S. in 1953 to end the Korean War), at least 6 times, in the years 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2013. Like his grandfather and father, Kim Jong Un is known to flip flop. In early 2012, Kim announced it would suspend nuclear tests and allow international inspector to monitor the moratorium in exchange for food aid from the U.S. But Pyongyang launched a long-range missile test in late 2012 and another one in early 2013.
How Should the U.S. Approach this Latest Development
The U.S. needs to play a sensitive and cool-headed partner. First, we need to be sensitive to South Korea people’s desire for peace. The decades long divided situation in Korean peninsula has separated many families and caused much suffering. If a war breaks out, it’s the South Koreans who will endure the immediate and probably the most significant loss. Therefore, the desire for a diplomatic solution is strong and we should be understanding and supportive.
Second, we needs to remain cool-headed. We need to clearly define our ultimate goal. Is it a complete disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program, or is it a halt of future weapons development, but the North can keep what they already have?
Let’s not forget the U.S. intelligence believes that North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon. What does peace in Korean peninsula look like? South Korea provides a shining example of what Korean people are capable of achieving in a democratic and free society. But it has long been North Korea and China’s fear that a united Korea would be based on the political and economic model of South Korea, an ally of the U.S.
If history offers any guidance, we can’t and shouldn’t be fooled by Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive tactics. Neither the U.S. nor South Korea should accept a unified Korea based on the political and economic model of the North. If we learned anything from Obama’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal, it is that sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal.
Therefore, the U.S. should be a partner of any peace negotiation but we should continue economic sanctions until there is strong evidence supporting real change of behavior on the part of Pyongyang. Given the fact that in Kim Jong Un, we are dealing with a ruthless and dangerous man, we should continue to be ready for war even if it’s the last resort. Never forget President Ronald Reagan’s mantra, “peace through strength.”
In his morning tweet, that’s seems to be President Trump’s inclination: “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
Let’s hope the author of “The Art of the Deal” means what he says.