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The West should be wary about the Korean peace trap

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in raise their hands after signing on a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Friday, April 27, 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in raise their hands after signing on a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Friday, April 27, 2018. AP

On the surface it looks as if the doubters were wrong.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, traveled into South Korea on Friday to meet his counterpart. They agreed in principle at least to formally end the war that has divided the peninsula they share. Kim even agreed to a joint statement calling for the denuclearization of the peninsula. What’s not to like?

Plenty. To understand why, examine the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” issued Friday by Kim and President Moon Jae-in after their meeting.

Let’s start with the issue most important to America and North Korea’s neighbors, the nuclear file. The joint communique says, “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” It also says the two states “shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard.” Finally it pledged that both would seek help and cooperation from the international community to achieve the goal of denuclearization.

That sounds pretty good, but it isn’t. North Koreans have historically used the phrase “denuclearization” to mean the U.S. should no longer extend its nuclear umbrella to protect South Korea. As former senior State Department official Evans Revere explained in a recent policy brief for the Brookings Institution, North Korean interlocutors have explained the concept in talks to U.S. officials and experts as “the elimination of the ‘threat’ posed by the U.S.-South Korea alliance, by U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, and by the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends South Korea and Japan.”

Then there is the strange language about how Kim’s recent announcement to pause missile tests is considered by both leaders “very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” It isn’t. As Kim himself said in his New Year’s Day address, he no longer sees a need to test its intercontinental ballistic missiles: “We attained our general orientation and strategic goal with success, and our Republic has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse.” The real test of Kim’s commitment will be measured in the level of transparency he provides to weapons inspectors and whether he will take steps to dismantle his nuclear infrastructure.

The problems with the communique, though, go beyond what both sides mean by “denuclearization.” There is also a sickening parity in the statement that equates a vibrant democratic republic with a totalitarian slave state. The two leaders agreed to a joint event on June 15 “in which participants from all levels, including central and local governments, parliaments, political parties, and civil organizations, will be involved.” There is only one political party in North Korea and no civil organizations. It’s dangerous to pretend otherwise.

President Donald Trump in particular should worry about what the communique between the two Koreas means for his own strategy of maximum pressure on Pyongyang unless and until the regime makes tangible concessions on the nuclear file. It references a 2007 communique between the two Koreas that pledged “economic growth and co-prosperity.” It calls for connecting roads and railways between the two Koreas. In and of itself, that’s unobjectionable. However it could be an economic lifeline that eases pressure before nuclear concessions are made.

For these reasons, Trump should be careful about next steps. He needs to make sure South Korea will not seek a separate peace with its rival. He also needs to get a better sense of the real steps Kim will take to disarm. Until then, Trump should slow the diplomacy down and wait. Kim has shown he is adept at getting optimistic headlines. That is a testament to his connivance, not his intentions.

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