Are we Really on the Brink of a New Era in Korea?

There are reasons to be skeptical about the dawning of a new age on the peninsula.

The NYT has a stunning headline regarding developments in talks with North Korea:  Kim Prepared to Cede Nuclear Weapons if U.S. Pledges Not to Invade

Keeping diplomatic developments coming at a head-snapping pace, the South Korean government said on Sunday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had told President Moon Jae-in that he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed to formally end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country.

[…]

The apparent concessions from the youthful leader were widely welcomed as perhaps the most promising signs yet of ending a standoff on the Korean Peninsula frozen in place since fighting in the Korean War ended 65 years ago.

I must confess:  it is impossible to accept the notion that North Korea would actually give up its nukes for a promise that the US would not invade.

Indeed,

skeptics warned that North Korea previously made similar pledges of denuclearization on numerous occasions, with little or no intention of abiding by them. Mr. Kim’s friendly gestures, they said, could turn out to be nothing more than empty promises aimed at lifting sanctions on his isolated country.

Put me in the “skeptics” category. Indeed, I have to agree with the current National Security Adviser,

Mr. Bolton, a longtime critic of past diplomacy with North Korea, expressed skepticism on Sunday, recalling past moments that looked hopeful. Those would include a commitment by Pyongyang in the 1990s to give up its nuclear program and the destruction of a nuclear power cooling tower in 2008 as part of a similar promise.

“We want to see real commitment,” he said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “We don’t want to see propaganda from North Korea. We’ve seen words. We’ve seen words so far.”

Asked about North Korea’s insistence on a promise by the United States not to invade, Mr. Bolton noted that was an old demand that had been rolled out on other occasions. “We’ve heard this before,” he said. “The North Korean propaganda playbook is an infinitely rich resource.”

Also, Max Boot, Don’t let the Korea summit hype fool you. We’ve been here before:

The meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea was acclaimed as “historic.” The two leaders hugged, “smiled broadly, shook each other’s hand vigorously and toasted each other with glasses of champagne.” Reporters noted that the “opening formalities seemed surprisingly relaxed, exceeding the expectations of many people, including perhaps those of the principals themselves. The South Korean leader said we must “proceed together on a path of reconciliation and cooperation.” The North Korean leader replied that “you will not be disappointed.”

Sound familiar? It should, because the news coverage of the 2000 meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang parallels the euphoria over Friday’s meeting in Panmunjom between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son. If anything, the 2000 meeting produced more tangible results: Not only declarations about ending the Korean War and uniting the two countries, but also concrete steps toward creating a joint South Korean-North Korean industrial park in Kaesong , allow South Korean tourists to visit the North, and to reunify families long divided by the demilitarized zone. Between 1998 and 2008, South Korea provided some $8 billion in economic assistanceto North Korea in the hope that all of this aid would create a kinder, gentler regime. Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.

And yet the Sunshine Policy, so widely heralded at the time, is now widely judged a failure. Despite North Korea’s promises, it did nothing to ease the repression of its populace or to end its nuclear and missile programs. It turned out Kim Dae-jung only achieved that “historic” 2000 summit by offering Kim Jong Il a $500 million bribe. Another summit was held in 2007, arranged by Moon Jae-in, then an aide to President Roh Moo-hyun, and it too was rapturously acclaimed. But the next year, a conservative government took power in Seoul and ended the Sunshine Policy.

As such, it is a bit early to be declaring any kind of success.

Further, I would recommend the following from Daniel Pinkston, a Lecturer in Troy University’s Master of Science of International Relations program, whom you have likely heard/read on this topic (he is frequently in the media):  North Korean Domestic Factors and Peace after the Third Inter-Korean Summit.  (Pinkston lives in Seoul, South Korea–Troy has programs in several military bases in the area).   Pinkston’s basic thesis is that only significant internal changes in North Korean politics would be necessary for any of Kim’s alleged promises to mean anything:

I believe that North Korea’s fundamental ideological and political orientation makes inter-Korean cooperation and peaceful coexistence virtually impossible. This does not mean inter-Korean peace is not possible; however, the “permanent and robust peace” as mentioned in the P’anmunjŏm Declaration is highly dubious under current conditions. True peace is not simply the absence of violent conflict. True peace means the elimination of fears or expectations that conflict will break out. Such an attitude and belief requires mutual tolerance, mutual respect, and the will to co-exist with others.

Unfortunately, North Korea is organized in a way that makes true peace extremely difficult. This does not mean that North Korea cannot change. All social and political systems change over time, but for true peace on the Korean peninsula, North Korea will have to change in some fundamental ways. There are five main areas that are determinants or clear indicators of Pyongyang’s intransigence and periodic belligerence. If North Korea has changed or will change, the changes likely would be observable in these areas.

I would suggest the piece in full, but will highlight the fifth area:

The pyŏngjin line [竝進路線] is another obstacle that makes North Korean denuclearization virtually impossible. Pyŏngjin means to advance in tandem or side-by-side. In this case, it means North Korea’s dual development of nuclear technology and the economy. The nuclear dimension includes both peaceful and military purposes. While most people would agree that nuclear development incurs an opportunity cost that impedes economic development, the pyŏngjin line asserts that nuclear development and economic development are inseparable. On the contrary, nuclear development is considered a necessary condition for economic development. According to the pyŏngjin line, abandoning nuclear weapons also means abandoning hopes of economic development and prosperity.

He notes that this is an ideological pillar of the regime that would require more than just a change in policy.

So, is it possible that a new day has dawned and the Kim regime is about to fundamentally change itself?  It is possible, but does not seem probable (and history dictates that the more likely explanation is that all of this is about the North taking advantage of a opening to extract some economic help, rather than a profound shift).

Another data-point that adds to the skepticism (via the BBC):  North Korea test site could be unusable after collapse – Chinese scientists.

Chinese scientists have concluded that North Korea’s nuclear test site has partially collapsed, potentially rendering it unusable.

The test site at Punggye-ri has been used for six nuclear tests since 2006.

After the last, in September, a series of aftershocks hit the site, which seismologists believe collapsed part of the mountain’s interior.

On Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced he was suspending his country’s nuclear and missile tests.

So, what was presented as a concession, may be something for which they have no choice. Not to mention that the nukes they have have already been successful:  the US and the South are both talking to the North as if it is a nuclear power.  To quote a couple of recent presidents, “Mission Accomplished.”

 

FILED UNDER: Asia, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    It seems to me some people think this will play out basically as the collapse of the Soviet Union, fall of the Iron Curtain, and reunification of Germany did. An old military buddy of mine wondered the other day if there might eventually be a draw-down of US troops in South Korea similar to the one that happened in Europe post-1991.

    There are a lot of people, and not just Trump supporters, who are counting a whole lot of chickens before they’ve hatched–maybe before the eggs have even been laid.

    Re: Bolton, he also said the US is looking at “the Libya model” (of supervised denuclearization). I would wager Kim is looking at that as well, although from a different perspective…




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  2. michael reynolds says:

    Of course Kim will give up nukes if we give him everything he wants. And make no mistake: we will. Kim will get peace, recognition and an end to sanctions. And we get? We get the mugger to drop his gun because his hands are full of our cash and credit cards.

    I’m all for peace, but let’s be clear that any deal will include stability for the Kim regime and a diminution of US power and prestige in Asia. South and North are conspiring to sideline us, and it’s working. Ten years from now the Kim dynasty will remain nuke-ready and we will be down to a token force in South Korea.

    Let’s see if we can guess which great power will profit most in the end? A de-nuclearized Korean peninsula with South Korea divided from the US? Next up: Taiwan. They’ll be making their own separate peace with China soon. We’ve already lost the Philippines and the Japanese will see which way the wind is blowing. Our containment of China is fraying badly.

    We don’t want to admit it, but the Korean war has been good for American power in the far east. Peace, especially peace with us out of the TPP, leaves us at least partly sidelined. But at least now Kim won’t launch a nuke at San Francisco. Which he already wasn’t going to do.




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  3. @Mikey:

    There are a lot of people, and not just Trump supporters, who are counting a whole lot of chickens before they’ve hatched–maybe before the eggs have even been laid.

    Indeed.

    Re: Bolton, he also said the US is looking at “the Libya model” (of supervised denuclearization). I would wager Kim is looking at that as well, although from a different perspective…

    Also: indeed.




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  4. @michael reynolds:

    Of course Kim will give up nukes if we give him everything he wants. And make no mistake: we will.

    Well, in the absence of anything concrete, it is hard to assess what Kim wants. But if he wants what the regime has wanted in the past, I have a hard time seeing it happen (i.e., US troop withdrawals and the like).




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  5. mattbernius says:

    Keeping diplomatic developments coming at a head-snapping pace, the South Korean government said on Sunday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had told President Moon Jae-in that he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed to formally end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country.

    Let’s accept for a moment that this was true on it’s face. I have to wonder what level of “formal agreement” North Korea would accept. Despite what Pompeo says, if we indeed make the decision to exit the Iran Agreement while Iran is not in material break of its commitments, it definitely demonstrates that Kim would be a fool to accept anything less than a formal treaty ratified by the Senate.

    And I have a really hard time seeing a nonagression treaty being able to successfully pass the Senate.




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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Another date-point that adds to the skepticism (via the BBC): North Korea test site could be unusable after collapse – Chinese scientists.

    Cheryl Rofer is a retired chemist who did a lot of work on nuclear policy:

    An underground nuclear test forms a cavity; the larger the yield, the larger the cavity. As the cavity cools, the ceiling collapses and forms a chimney filled with loose rock. A crater may form at the surface (diagram) and video.

    The aftershocks could be the cavity collapsing in stages, or they could be the cavity and tunnels collapsing. Or it could be things happening in the rest of the mountain, as the jolt of the blast destabilizes things. It could be that the blast also fractured rock throughout the mountain. Landslides can be seen around the mountain, and its surface contours have been altered.

    None of this is extraordinary for nuclear test sites. To say that it represents the mountain’s collapse is an exaggeration, as is the phrase “Tired Mountain Syndrome.”

    A few articles have indulged in scare talk about radioactive material escaping from future tests. That would be a mostly local concern, if indeed the mountain is so fractured. There would be no point to another test where the chimney has formed, and North Korea has additional tunnels in other places in the mountain.

    It’s likely that the North Koreans would find such an escape undesirable for other reasons. They have been extremely careful to contain their tests; escape of material would allow other countries insight into the design of their nuclear weapons.

    US intelligence officials have said that the test site remains operational.

    ETA the short video is impressive and worth the trip




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  7. @OzarkHillbilly: I am more than happy to note that I am not an expert on such things, and allow that the facility may still be operational.

    Having said that, I still do not find their promise to stop testing to be much a concession, as they have the weapons already and are getting what they want from them.




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  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, in the absence of anything concrete, it is hard to assess what Kim wants. But if he wants what the regime has wanted in the past, I have a hard time seeing it happen (i.e., US troop withdrawals and the like).

    Kim doesn’t need to demand troop withdrawals from South Korea, the South Koreans will do that in due course, and the American taxpayer will cheer. Kim wants what every human wants: life, food, shelter, and the power to murder annoying relatives. We’re going to grant him life and the rest will come with it. The price of the deal will be the survival and security of the worst regime on earth, there’s nothing else Kim needs and nothing else we can give him, so that will be the deal.




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  9. @michael reynolds: We shall see, as I think we are a long ways from the South behaving in that fashion.

    I am skeptical that an actual deal with emerge, let alone anything else.




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  10. Kathy says:

    @Mikey: It seems to me some people think this will play out basically as the collapse of the Soviet Union, fall of the Iron Curtain, and reunification of Germany did.

    I was thinking exactly of that when considering how many more times event went in a different way.

    Kim proclaiming desires of peace and denuclearization, strikes me more akin to a guy named Adolph making the last of his territorial demands in Europe. Also, after the Iron Curtain and then the Soviet Union fell, China resisted popular pressure and still stands. So does Cuba. And so does North Korea.

    Kim’s big advantage this time, is he only has to fool one person. And he’s proven easy to fool.




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  11. Of the possible scenarios, the USSR does not seem to me to be likely. Keep in mind that for all its flaws, the USSR was a fairly well institutionalized super-power. Further, there was not South USSR that was economically advanced poised to have to deal with its demise.

    Even East and West Germany is not a good analogy.




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  12. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Cleanup needed in the sub-hed: “There are reason…”




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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That is basically her point. I was only high lighting the fact that the Chinese may have an agenda that does not fit ours.

    ETA or NK’s




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  14. @de stijl: Thanks.




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  15. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think you are correct about the political climate in the South. Moon, from what I recall back during my time there and from what my Korean friends tell me, is not all that far left of center. While I was living in Korea, the US and Korean military were engaging in processes that would have transferred control of military operations completely to the Korean military and Defense Ministry by, IIRC, 2020. As the process proceeded, both sides became aware that the plan was impractical in light of the continued brinksmanship of Kim Jong-il. There is no reason to believe that condition has changed significantly. While I was there a few weeks ago, I saw nothing in the media nor among people that I knew that indicated any hardening of attitude about the US. There’s no particular push with regard to the US military presence in Korea. In fact, positive feeling appeared to be stronger now than when I came to Korea in 2007.




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  16. Franklin says:

    Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.

    I wanted to highlight this. All of our conservative friends today are lauding the news that Moon says Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobody mentions it’s for the exact same thing, inter-Korean talks, that Kim Dae-jung won it for 18 years ago. With no lasting results.

    (Not to mention, Moon was actually responding to somebody else suggesting the Prize for himself. As any humble Korean would do, he deflected.)




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  17. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m skeptical, but it must be kept in mind the Chinese really, really don’t like the PDRKs nukes with ICBMs, and it may be they have convinced Li’l Kim they are considering biting the bullet on a melt-down of his regime over the matter.

    He has been pissing the Chinese off since day one, so why would they invite him for a visit? It appears to me he was summoned. Also, if the nuke program was intended, as the first plenary meeting of the Party of Kim’s regime stated, to be a method to create a shield so they could reduce that absurd million-man military, trading them away makes sense.

    Skeptical, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he is scrambling to get whatever he can for them, and with the help of South Korea and China that could be a lot.

    It should be apparent to the Norks their ability to be their people’s sole source if information can’t last forever or even much longer…and their people had better be in a good mood when that happens or they will all be strung up by piano wire. The man was educated in Switzerland. If he has any sense at all he would’ve known he has to hatch some kind of wild plot to get that rump end of Stalinism back into the world….or that he had to turn down the job.

    I’m deeply skeptical but I wouldn’t be shocked.




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  18. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m skeptical, but it must be kept in mind the Chinese really, really don’t like the PDRKs nukes with ICBMs, and it may be they have convinced Li’l Kim they are considering biting the bullet on a melt-down of his regime over the matter.

    He has been pissing the Chinese off since day one, so why would they invite him for a visit? It appears to me he was summoned. Also, if the nuke program was intended, as the first plenary meeting of the Party of Kim’s regime stated, to be a method to create a shield so they could reduce that absurd million-man military, trading them away makes sense. I wouldn’t be shocked if he is scrambling to get whatever he can for them, and with the help of South Korea and China that could be a lot.

    It should be apparent to the Norks their ability to be their people’s sole source if information can’t last forever or even much longer…and their people had better be in a good mood when that happens or they will all be strung up by piano wire. The man was educated in Switzerland. If he has any sense at all he would’ve known he has to hatch some kind of wild plot to get that rump end of Stalinism back into the world….or that he had to turn down the job.

    I’m deeply skeptical but I wouldn’t be shocked.




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