by Ben Weingarten · March 9, 2018
President Bill Clinton’s October 1994 statement announcing a nuclear agreement with North Korea is a classic of the “peace in our time” genre of American foreign policy fiction.
“I am pleased that the United States and North Korea yesterday reached agreement on the text of a framework document on North Korea’s nuclear program,” he said. “This agreement will help to achieve a longstanding and vital American objective: an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula.
Of course, the threat did not end there. And America would fare little better under presidents Bush and Obama. Truth be told, our record in in diplomatic negotiations aimed at defanging hostile regimes from North Korea and Iran to Russia is at best mixed. It is this history that looms large over what is to come of the impending summit to be held between President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
In the immediate term the few observations we can make are generally more political than substantive in nature.
Kim was in a no-lose situation to propose these talks. Had the U.S. rejected his entreaties, he would have argued that the “Imperialist Yankees are hellbent on war,” thereby justifying North Korea’s continued weapons of mass destruction advancement and general bellicosity. The U.S. political establishment would likely have aped Kim’s line, since it has been committed for months to the “Trump is crazy” Dr. Strangelove narrative.
Kim gets a propaganda coup and perceived international legitimacy from the agreement. The dictator will be able to claim to his people that he forced the greatest power in the world to the negotiating table, showing that the regime’s cantankerous actions brought the nation power and respect.
From the U.S. perspective, the Trump administration will be able to claim that its “Speak loudly and carry a big stick” strategy of engagement with respect to North Korea worked. Heated rhetoric, maximum economic pressure via sanctions and military maneuverings in the region forced North Korea into a stunning about face: Where mere months ago North Korea was launching ballistic missiles and touting its hydrogen bomb, now North Korea is announcing its interest in denuclearization, calling for immediate talks without preconditions and vowing in the interim to halt all missile and nuclear tests while acknowledging joint military exercises between South Korea and the U.S. “must continue.”
Should the U.S. ultimately strike North Korea, no one in America will be able to say that the Trump administration did so without first ratcheting up non-military pressure and attempting diplomacy. All of that said, from a substantive perspective it would be a fool’s errand to judge these talks until they transpire and actions are taken, or not, as the case may be.
North Korea, a gulag nation of starvation, murder and misery, is perpetually engaged in deception and subterfuge. History suggests that when the West gets in the negotiating room with such regimes, we frequently allow them to pocket concessions up front in exchange for future promises that never materialize (see again the aforementioned Clinton and Bush negotiations, and Iran Deal for starters). We are all too frequently duped by enemies that seem to understand us better than we understand them. It stands to reason that North Korea may use such talks to buy itself time and ultimately cash to continue advancing its goals, especially to the degree to which its economy is as crippled as has been reported.
It is heartening that the White House recognizes these issues, noting in its talking points immediately following the news of North Korea’s desire to hold talks that among other things:
We remain committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
We stand together with our allies and partners and insist that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.
The global maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea matches its words with concrete actions.
Vice President Mike Pence implicitly acknowledged the folly of concessions and the power of “peace through strength,” asserting: “The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the United States making zero concessions and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim regime … the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent, and verifiable steps to end their nuclear program.”
These talks will allow America to convey our deadly seriousness about denuclearization to the North Koreans, and hopefully serve as a useful intelligence gathering exercise on a regime America persistently seems to underestimate. Provided the U.S. does not allow itself to fall prey to a predictable Kim charm offensive, talks should be telling in particular to gauge what North Korea wants. At the end of the day, that is the most important question.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in February 2018, outgoing Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris expressed a view about the North Korean regime’s aims contrary to the political establishment.
Those comments bear repeating: “I do think that there is a prevailing view that KJU [Kim Jong Un] is doing the things that he is doing to safeguard his regime. I don’t ascribe to that view … I do think that he is after reunification under a single communist system, so he is after what his grandfather failed to do and his father failed to do.”
It was reported following Kim’s recent talks with South Korean counterparts that he wishes to “write a new history of national reunification.”
Kim may view the Trump administration as the bad cop, but the South Korean regime, run as it is by an administration that apparently adheres to the “Sunshine” appeasement view, may be the perfect mark. Does he think he can coax a war-weary America into making moves, along with a pliant South Korea, that will ultimately enable reunification, including the removal of our troops from the Korean peninsula?
In the coming days it will be worth watching both North Korean propaganda publications, and Chinese ones, reading between the lines for messages the allied regimes are trying to convey in advance of talks.
Today the Chinese Communist Party published an unsigned editorial, “How China should respond to US-NK talks” portraying the Red Dragon as “incomparable with the U.S,” and claiming “China’s huge influence on North Korea has ceased.” China’s apparent deference and humility can be read as a disingenuous attempt to distance itself from a North Korea that has provided it leverage and power over the U.S. and its allies. “If the Kim-Trump meeting will contribute to denuclearization and peace that China desires the most, China has no reason to be unhappy about it,” the editorial claims.
It is true that China does not want to deal with hundreds of thousands or millions of North Koreans flooding its borders in the event of a war with the U.S., something nuclearization could cause. It is also true that China knows absolute pressure on North Korea could involve major sanctions of Chinese institutions, which could cripple Xi’s economy. Nevertheless, again, it is convenient for China to publicly wash its hands of a nuclear-armed North Korean regime it has backed for decades. Perhaps more important is China’s emphasis on “peace.”
What does peace mean for China? Could it be that peace equals a reunified Korea under Communist leadership, as Harris intimated?
It is important to note that Harris speculated on KJU’s desire to achieve what his father “failed to do.” What did Kim Jong-il want? Purported excerpts from his last will and testament were leaked out of North Korea following his death. While we should take his words with a grain of salt, what was reported of them in 2012 appears quite prophetic.
Kim Jong-il allegedly urged peaceful reunification with South Korea as the ultimate goal for the Kim family. He said when pursuing the opening of relations with the South, key was doing so from a position of military strength. According to the purported will, he said with respect to the United States: “We have to win the psychological war with America. By standing up imposingly as a legitimate nuclear power, we have to weaken the US influence on the Korean peninsula and work toward lifting international sanctions to prepare external conditions for economic development.”
Kim supposedly added that North Korea would have to return to Six-Party Talks, for the purpose of gaining recognition as a global nuclear power.
North Korea’s accelerated weapons development and increasingly aggressive actions and words, met with a ratcheting up of U.S. rhetoric, sanctions and military action, followed by a supposed softening towards South Korea and now the United States leading to talks have tracked remarkably well with Kim Jong-il’s supposed wishes.
We must deal with North Korea skeptically, cautiously and with no illusions as to the Stalinist regime’s nature. We must focus like a laser on achieving what is in our national interest while recognizing North Korea’s ambitions — economic, military and/or reunification-related — the tactics and strategies it will use to achieve them, and how we will counter them. We must do so with an eye towards history. To modify a Ronald Reagan line, we must “distrust and verify.”
The Federalist · by Ben Weingarten · March 9, 2018