When news broke that President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un would sit down for negotiations with a specific focus on “denuclearization,” I counseled that America deal with North Korea skeptically, cautiously, and with no illusions about the Stalinist regime’s nature.
This advice still holds in the wake of the euphoric coverage of Kim Jong-Un’s historic trip to South Korea, and the sweeping declaration the two nations signed emphasizing their dedication to ending the Korean War and normalizing relations, “denuclearization,” and ultimately reunification of the Korean peninsula.
Consider that to date, in exchange for the largely optical decision to halt weapons testing and expressed interest in “denuclearization” and “peace” with South Korea, Kim has scored a propaganda coup. Dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in lavished praise on Kim for his “courageous and bold decision” to sit for direct talks in South Korea, punctuated by footage of a literal walk in the park between the two parties. A U.S. president is likely to negotiate directly with the North Korean leader. Kim was provided further legitimacy in a recent handshake photo-op with the then-impending U.S. secretary of state.
All that said, North Korea is coming to the table from a position of economic weakness, in the face of threatened military action, ratcheted up sanctions including pressure on its ultimate protector in China, and heated rhetoric. Unlike previous administrations, the Trump White House rightly intuits that appeasing a gulag state overlord only invites further aggression.
But North Korea is also coming to the table militarily more advanced than it has ever been. It sees a “Sunshine” counterpart across the border highly desirous of a cessation in tensions. It knows many Americans have little appetite for the kind of large-scale military operation that would be required to destroy North Korea’s weapons arsenal, an operation that would not only be tactically challenging but leave millions of civilians in the crosshairs.
We should not put the cart before the horse in the face of a prototypically deceptive and ruthless Communist regime engaged in a charm offensive for Western audiences. The text of the Panmunjom Declaration, a product of the present North Korea-South Korea détente, should be read in this light.
The joint statement between the two nations says there will be “no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.” While acknowledging the magnitude of a potential “peace” on the Korean peninsula, we must remember that the terms of that peace, and who is dictating those terms, matters. All we can do right now is speculate about what “peace” would look like.
In addition to announcing a warming of relations, “the two sides agreed to adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilization” as part of an effort to “promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.”
This can be read as setting the stage for North Korea’s receipt of an economic lifeline from South Korea. In exchange for stating a desire to tamp down its bellicosity, it will get access to a thriving and dynamic economy that will help decrepit, centrally planned North Korea and its political leaders recapitalize. Nothing in the joint statement indicates that North Korea has any desire to liberalize economically or otherwise.
The two sides “confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” Kim has never defined what denuclearization means. Will he destroy all extant weapons and related materials, dismantle all aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program, and open the doors for the West to verify these actions?
Given our previous intelligence failures, how do we know this will not be a Potemkin exercise, with Kim concealing weapons and weapons development facilities of which we may be unaware? What of all the scientists who worked on these programs? Their collective knowledge will not simply disappear.
Last but not least, the agreement calls for taking all efforts towards the ultimate goal of “unification of the Korean Peninsula.” Again, the question here is: unification on what terms? Will South Korea’s relatively free governmental system prevail over the peninsula, or will North Korea’s Communist system dominate?
Words such as “war,” “peace,” “denuclearization,” and “unification” are at present ill-defined. So when Kim says “We will work towards preventing another horrible war… With one language, one culture and one history, North and South Korea will be joined as one nation,” we must parse carefully. What if the means to “preventing another horrible war” is the imposition of a horrible peace?
As noted previously, U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris, the rumored next ambassador to South Korea, testified in front of Congress in February 2018 that he believed Kim “is after reunification under a single communist system, so he is after what his grandfather failed to do and his father failed to do.”
Kim’s actions to date have not deviated one iota from the playbook left to him by his father, Kim Jong-il, in his alleged last will and testament. This indicates Harris’ words are prescient.
Kim Jong-il urged his successor to pursue relations with South Korea from a position of military strength; to consider opening inter-Korean rail and road links, no doubt in part towards the objective of “economic development”; and to ultimately aim for peaceful reunification. Does this not track well with the Panmunjom Declaration and other statements and actions taken to date?
Tellingly, the one area where Kim acts as if he is breaking from his father is in the realm of “denuclearization.” On this front, his father allegedly wrote: “Keep in mind that constantly developing and keeping nuclear (weapons), long-range missiles and biochemical weapons is the way to keep peace on the Korean peninsula, and never drop your guard.”
Is “denuclearization” a ruse? Does Kim want the West to drop our guard? Recall that we were assured Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile was going to be destroyed, too. Will Kim collect all of the benefits of at best some form of a freeze and perhaps superficial dismantling efforts, only for the United States to wake up one day with a reunified Korea rid of U.S. soldiers under one-party Communist rule, and thus an even more dominant China proxy with an expanded regional footprint?
If past is prologue, America’s utmost skepticism is more than merited.