On Tuesday, North Korea suddenly cancelled planned high-level talks with South Korea, citing anger over joint US-South Korean military drills that the North decried as a “rehearsal for invasion”. Shortly after, they threatened to pull out of the highly-anticipated US-DPRK summit scheduled for June if the US demanded that they give up their nuclear weapons, with Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan saying that if the US “corners us and unilaterally demands we give up nuclear weapons we will no longer have an interest in talks and will have to reconsider whether we will accept the upcoming DPRK-US summit”.
These announcements come following a long period of diplomatic progress on the Korean Peninsula, with the leaders of both North and South Korea meeting and announcing that they would pursue the common goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and were interested in officially ending the decades-old Korean War. There was widespread praise of leadership on all sides, even calls for the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Donald Trump for his part in this seemed détente in Korea.
Now, North Korea threatens to yank the rug out from underneath this premature celebration. These diplomatic strides made last month were undeniably large, and the future seemed promising. So, what happened? Where did this sudden reversal of goodwill go?
What is happening is that these negotiations are falling into the same pattern that they have always gone through for the past twenty years. A simple glance back in not-to-distant-history shows that North Korea has made diplomatic maneuvers similar to the ones of last month multiple times before, only to fall back on any promises made, pocket any profits made from the negotiations, and continue the advancement of their nuclear program.
A Repeating History
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, compiled a comprehensive history of North Korea’s nuclear program, and upon reading over that history, a clear pattern begins to emerge: North Korea agrees to some concession (suspension of nuclear program, etc.), there is a breakdown in negotiations, usually facilitated by North Korea, prompting them to walk away from the table and resume their work on atomic weapons. This pattern is clear and frequent. Diplomatic efforts have been consistently ineffective.
Attempts by the international community to punish North Korea for their nuclear advances have largely proved fruitless; a multitude of sanctions, including bans on arms imports, asset freezes of regime members, export bans, and import bans, have been imposed on the country. Many of these sanctions are designed to target specific members of the Kim Regime or individuals and industries associated with their nuclear program.
The first nuclear test by North Korea in October of 2006 was immediately met with a United Nations Security Council Resolution imposing sanctions on the country. Several more nuclear tests and missile tests have taken place over the last decade, culminating in the September 2017 test that North Korea claims to have been a successful test of a hydrogen bomb. All of these advances have occurred despite the ever-growing pile of sanctions being heaped on the country.
Nuclear Weapons, The Rational Choice
The ineffectiveness of both diplomacy and sanctions is a testament to the resolve of the North Korean government’s desire for nuclear technology and weapons. North Korea’s obsession with the acquisition of nuclear weapons stems from the Kim Regime’s need to appear strong, both inward to its citizens and outward to other countries to deter interference.
As a cautionary tale, North Korea can look to Libya and Muammar Gaddafi to see what happens when a strongman gives up their weapons of mass destruction to his enemies; once Gaddafi was disarmed, he was destabilized by internal crisis and made easy pickings for foreign military intervention that resulted in the end of his rule and of his life. Had Gaddafi still possessed his weapons of mass destruction, Libya would look very different today.
This is partially why I don’t believe that North Korea, nor Kim Jong-Un, is irrational in their fanatic pursuit of nuclear weapons. In fact, it is the clearly rational choice: Nuclear weapons are one of the few guarantors of the safety and stability of North Korea, both internally and externally.
The international community, including the United States, needs to fully understand that under no circumstances will the current North Korean regime give up their nuclear weapons. To do so would mean death.
Hope Clouds Observation
North Korea has continuously taken advantage of a hopeful international community that longs for a peaceful Korean Peninsula and less nuclear weapons, and continues play us for the blinded fools we make ourselves. Once again, we have been lured in by a North Korea that makes hollow promises, in vain hopes that one day they will give up their nuclear weapons and the situation there will calm down.
Do the historic failures of diplomacy mean that we should give up on them? Of course not, where diplomacy ends war begins, and a war with North Korea would have catastrophic consequences. Though it has fallen short previously, diplomacy has not been exhausted, it just has to be done in a smarter manner going forward. We need to learn from our past mistakes, and not allow ourselves to rush into negotiations with North Korea at the first sign of détente.
I believe that everyone, especially everybody in the United States, would love to have hostilities end on the Korean Peninsula and the full denuclearization of North Korea to take place. As idyllic as this vision is, we cannot be blinded by optimism and rush into negotiations with North Korea with their history of deception fresh in our minds and expect anything different in the results.
In his novel Dune, Frank Herbert writes, “Hope clouds observation”, meaning that when you are hopeful for a certain result in a situation, you will cause yourself to interpret the situation in a way that only confirms your view, blinding yourself to roadblocks, potentially at your own peril. You put blinders on yourself in pursuit of your goal, ignoring anything that goes contrary to your view.
The current administration, blinded by the positive and widely-shared goal of a peaceful Korean Peninsula, rushed in and claimed diplomatic victory before the two sides had even sat down, and now face embarrassment as North Korea threatens to upend the whole situation. (Personally I think that North Korea did this on purpose in order to play the Trump administration for the idealistic fools they were). This isn’t quite as cringe-worthy as the infamous George W. Bush “Mission Accomplished” speech was, but the current administration definitely broke open the champagne before the battle even began.
Hope clouds observation, and when dealing with a country as dangerous as North Korea, we need our observational skills to remain clear and unclouded, the lives of millions depend on it.
Portions of this piece are from an essay I recently wrote entitled “Failures of Carrot-Stick Diplomacy: The North Korean Nuclear Program”.
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times