If you think North Korea is going to give up its nuclear weapons, I’ve got some land near Mar-a-Lago to sell you. I get the “wait-and-see” stance many of my peers are taking, and I honestly hope I’m wrong; but if Kim Jong Un fully disarms, I will eat this entire website.
Look, NK did not dedicate over 20 years of resources to acquiring a nuclear arsenal just so they can let them go as soon as a US president notices them at the dance. The goals of their program have always been twofold: 1) yes, extortion...that’s their M.O.; but also, 2) a secure deterrent against another war with the US. They finally have it, and it’s been working--that’s why we haven’t acted against them militarily in the past decade-and-a-half, despite our willingness to intervene in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, et al. For 2nd Amendment advocates out there, if you have guns in your home for defense of your family, what would it take for you to hand them over? Why on Earth would the Kim regime relinquish its one effective trump card (pun resented)?
And we’ve been here before. Our current POTUS isn’t somehow extracting promises from the DPRK they haven’t offered in the past. Heck, their original A-bombs were specifically manufactured while they were under an agreement to “denuclearize”. Bill Clinton put the deal together in 1994 with deserved skepticism from Republicans, and they were proven right in 2003 when Bush’s intel team caught North Korea red-handed in violation of the deal; but by then it was too late--they’d already produced fission weapons. In the 2000’s, NK continued to brandish the nuclear stick and the peace-for-bribes carrot, taking cash, but never tapping the brakes on their program. Either of the previous two presidents at any time could have gotten the same photo op as Trump, accompanied by the same empty promises. They didn’t because they shared an understanding that it wouldn’t work to give the mouse another cookie like Clinton had. Let’s just be clear: “the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” means literally nothing. “Work toward” is a way of saying, “We don’t have to do anything.” Referring to the “Korean peninsula” is the only really germaine part here--Kim wants us out. Duh.
Maybe some would point to the recent steps toward “denuclearization” that North Korea has already taken, especially the demolition of their major testing facility and cessation of further tests. After a year of North Korean news dominated by announcements that they’ve finally perfected an H-bomb and made ballistic missiles that put the entire continental US in range, they announced they aren’t testing anymore. Well, yeah... That’s how tests work. The US actually stopped testing nuclear weapons as well, way back in 1992! Did you know we’re “denuclearized”? Oh--no, wait. We have more nuclear weapons than any nation on the planet. Kim Jong Un stopped nuclear testing the same way recent high school grads stopped taking finals. They were done.
A nuclear arsenal is the most formidable national security insurance policy (and negotiating tool) one can buy. No one in the “Nuclear Club” gives it up. There are basically two “precedents” for the kind of “denuclearization” we’re calling for: Libya and Syria. Libya is the prime example everyone points to of a nation really cooperating and giving up their nuclear program. But Gaddafi didn’t just grow his Grinch heart three sizes one day and decide to become a pacifist. He came clean and surrendered in 2003 after he saw what happened to Afghanistan and Iraq when they didn’t comply with US Coalition ultimatums. Bush and Blair very quietly had their envoys whisper a few words in Gaddafi’s ear, and amazingly he was all, “Oh! You mean this gate key!” This, importantly, was before Libya had acquired nuclear weapons. No trump card. No deterrent. Kim Jong Un knows he isn’t Gaddafi anymore.
Syria was a simpler story. The world really wasn’t that aware of the progress Syria had made in its nuclear program...until Israel destroyed it. Boom. In 2007 Israel bombed Syria’s major nuclear reactor that didn’t exist (except, yes it did) into oblivion, sending that science fair project back to middle school (did we mention North Korea helped the Syrians build it? Ahem). Effective, but not exactly an example of compliant denuclearization. And, again, it was prior to reaching the finish line. No one disarms once they’re in the Nuclear Club. (They do, however, talk about Nuclear Club. Well, Israel doesn’t.)
A better historical comparison is Reykjavik, 1986. Two fully-armed nuclear powers met for a summit in Iceland to seriously talk about reducing the threat of WWIII. Reagan and Gorbachev met up one-on-one for discussion of stockpile reductions, but not many are aware their conversation went astonishingly further. At one point, the men sincerely considered total, mutual disarmament. An abrupt end to the whole world’s collective nightmare under the mushroom-shaped shadow of the Cold War. But it didn’t happen. Gorbachev balked at the one yardline. Faced with a failure of Soviet commitment to real and sufficient concessions, Ronald Reagan walked out. Took off for home. No more photo ops, no half-hearted “statement” signaling virtue but signifying nothing. If Russia wasn’t serious, he didn’t have time for that.
But Trump is no Reagan, of course. More importantly, perhaps, Kim Jong Un is no Mikhail Gorbachev. There will be no significant follow-up progress on elimination of North Korean nuclear weapons. There will be no major reform or movement toward democracy in North Korea soon, not like we saw at the end of the Cold War. At least, not this way. Not the way of appeasement.
A question lingers: if this is all a charade, why did South Korea make such unexpectedly significant steps toward reconciliation with the North, and toward getting the US at the table with them? The unfortunate, muffled answer we may be forced to concede is the one expounded recently by Korea scholar Robert Kelly. As many have hoped or begrudgingly allowed, Trump’s bellicose rhetoric may in fact have induced fear in Korea that opened the door for this “dialogue”. But not in the right Korea. Most likely, the urgency to attain a facile peace was prompted by fear in the South. They are the ones afraid of war--our allies.