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Let’s Talk About North Korea

After more than a year of off-the-wall threats thrown back and forth between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, including the infamous “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his” Tweet of President Trump, and including Kim calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” while Trump belittled him with the sobriquet, “Rocket Man,” the two national leaders are getting ready to have face to face talks with each other. This follows an about face by Kim after increased development and testing of his nuclear weapons to the point that most experts believe he poses a real threat to his Asian neighbors, such as Japan, and perhaps to the U.S. President Trump met those threats with threats of his own, of “fire and fury” if Kim should engage in military action and with actual increases in sanctions against both his regime and anyone who did business with them. 

It is unclear what brought the turnabout in Kim Jong Un’s behavior. Nearly all experts believe that his development of nuclear weapons is designed to give him a bargaining chip in negotiations with other countries, particularly the U.S., and the sanctions on his nation are continuing to cause immense economic hardship. It may well be that, in Donald Trump, Kim found an American president who actually frightened him in terms of his unpredictability and apparent willingness to respond to Kim’s antics with military power. Certainly, the ascension of Moon Jae-in, an avowed proponent of rapprochement with North Korea, to the presidency of South Korea, has made a world of difference. Moon has taken the lead in thawing relationships between the two Koreas, achieving a diplomatic coup by inviting North Korea to participate and even partner with South Korea in the Winter Olympics in his country. Their recent breakthrough one-on-one discussion, with both leaders stepping across the border into the other’s country and agreeing to end the long-standing and never-completed Korean war, as well as to cement friendly relationships and agree to complete denuclearization of the peninsula, is a development never before reached in North and South Korea relations since the fighting between their countries ended in 1953.

Most Americans, and indeed, world leaders, including those from other Asian countries, are hopeful about the new developments in Korea, but skeptical. The most celebratory messages regarding the agreement between the two Korean leaders have been contained in President Trump’s Tweets, which have declared, “KOREAN WAR TO END!”

Skeptics warn that we have heard this tune before, both during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, when Kim’s father agreed to cessation of his nuclear program, but was found to have only kept it out of sight while he violated the terms of the agreement. They point out that Kim’s regime will still be one of the most egregious in terms of its violations of its citizens’ rights and its downright cruelty to those within its country who oppose it. They remind us that Kim had both his uncle and his brother assassinated. Most experts agree that Kim’s only bargaining chip is his possession of nuclear weapons and that he would be foolish to give them up completely. They point out what happened to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear program and the U.S. supported rebels who ousted then murdered him, and to Saddam Hussein, who also discontinued his nuclear program and was overthrown and executed by the U.S.  Kim has heard Trump talk about tearing up the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, and presumably would be wary of the U.S. sticking with any agreement it made, when a new administration comes to power.

What President Trump will do when he talks to Kim Jong Un is anyone’s guess. Both men are unpredictable, probably the American president more so than the Korean leader. The cooler heads of H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson are now absent from Trump’s circle of advisors, replaced by the considerably more hawkish John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. So far the U.S. has insisted that Kim must agree to dismantling his nuclear program for talks to start. That demand will not be met before he and Trump meet. As an initial demand before any other items are discussed, it seems self-defeating, as no Korean expert believes that Kim will agree to it and would be foolish if he did. He would be giving away any parity with the U.S. before negotiations even began. 

Many are urging unrelenting sanctions and continued military threats as the best way to deal with Kim Jong Un. They believe that these strategies have borne fruit already, bringing Kim to the bargaining table and getting him to suspend his nuclear tests for now. They could be right. Perhaps, in the face of an immoveable American president, Kim will throw in the towel and agree to whatever we demand. This seems highly unlikely. Instead of such a confrontational approach, perhaps by following the lead of Moon Jae-in (whose country is much more vulnerable to a militant North Korea than is the U.S.), and rewarding each friendly step that Kim Jong Un takes, with incremental reductions in sanctions as well as reduction in the U.S. military threats, such as ceasing such threatening acts as our joint South Korea-U.S. military maneuvers, we can show him the benefits of conciliation. 

Kim Jong Un has an infant nuclear program with a few bombs and newly developed long-range missiles. The U.S. has a military presence of nearly 25, 000 soldiers across his border in South Korea and has pledged to respond to an attack from his country on his neighbors South Korea or Japan, with military force, including use of nuclear weapons—the so-called “nuclear umbrella” that allows us to ask other nations not to develop nuclear weapons themselves in return for us pledging to use ours to defend them. When he was Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo was in favor of regime change in North Korea.  In other words, Kim Jong Un has lots of reasons for being paranoid about U.S. military intentions toward him and his country. Asking him to give up his own defense and “trust us” seems like poor advice when one looks at the situation honestly.

Rewarding each step toward developing a peaceful situation on the Korean peninsula seems preferable to maintaining a standoff with nuclear threats from both directions. We need not demand complete denuclearization, particularly not as a starting point to negotiations. A cessation of further development would be a good compromise. Lifting sanctions, incrementally, in response to Kim’s movements toward non-belligerence, seems also to be a wise strategy. Watching his country achieve greater economic success can be a big reward for Kim, and it seems likely that if he can envision a pathway toward his country achieving some of the success of his southern neighbor, he will take it. On top of that, the sanctions to North Korea have inflicted as much humanitarian grief on that country’s citizens as have the Kim family’s draconian dictatorship over the years.

It’s fine to be skeptical, but let’s not let our skepticism undermine a chance for peace.



Reader Comments (3)

I like to think we will see other countries unilaterally declare peace. Wow...that would certainly end USA hegemony ...and a lot of suffering.

(Notice unilaterally is used here referring to declaring peace without the big gorilla--Uncle Sam)

April 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

The talks will probably result in cessation of further North Korean nuclearization while allowing Kim to literally sit on a few nukes as a deterrent to decapitation. Trade will resume and the North Korean people will feel some uplift from their degrading level of poverty. President Trump will then deservedly win the Nobel Peace Prize and further increase his political status among all Americans.

As for ending American hegemony in the world.....that would be a terrible outcome. The American experiment has won out against all other competitors for nearly a quarter of a millennium. We have the best social, political and economic system- not perfect, but self-correcting. Our system is in fact so good that we have to severely limit the number of people we admit into our country on an annual basis because so many are drawn to the amazing opportunities within our societal framework. Why should we apologize for setting standards to which tens of millions of people aspire to and which dozens of countries seek to emulate?

April 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Ok, I can’t resist. So here’s how it really went down (in my mind).
DT: (calling at midnight, Washington; 3:30 p.m. N. Korean time)
Hey Jongie, How are things goin’ little Rocket Man?...No, no. It’s a compliment. Elton John wrote that song. And he’s knighted! Everything I say is a compliment: crooked, leaker, liar, slimeball, loser lightweight, bimbo… No they love it!
…So, you might have heard. Things are getting a little hot for me here with this terrible, terrible, unfair, terrible break-in of my lawyer’s office, SAD! Yeah, money laundering is a big effin’ deal here (stupid law) and the Feds now have all my tax records. So, Jongie can you do me a solid?...
Sure, an announcement would be GREAT! Really? Total Disarmament? Man, you don’t mess around! I’m hearing Nobel Prize, maybe knighthood for both of us and that guy to the south of you, what’s his name? That’s tremendous, the biggest announcement since the beginning of time! What? No??? I scared you. You’re kidding me! A nuclear attack couldn’t destroy the world… It could have? Our missiles can’t do that… Really? Wow! Damn lucky you told me before I said anything stupid - missed the bullet on that one if you know what I mean…
Well, anyway, In return? Hmmm. Imagine this” “Kim Towers,” right in the heart of Pyongyang. Yeah, taller than that pointy thing you got going on. Gold everything. I promise. Plus, I’ll guarantee 100% occupancy on day one. My take? 75%. Ok, then 50%.
We’ll own the world, Jongie. We’ll own the world!

April 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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