On Denuclearization and North Korea
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
As we try to approach the issue of the politics of the Korean peninsula, including both talks between the North and the South, as well as the pending Kim-Trump summit, we need to think about what is, and what is not, going on here.
Let’s consider the word “denuclearization.” I get the impression that to the casual observer of this ongoing drama that it means “North Korea gives up their nuclear weapons, and the US and South Korea make some concessions.” I am not trying to straw man here, I am describing what the discussion often sounds like to me–the focus tends to be on the idea that NK will give up its nukes, and there is a lot less discussion of what the US will have to do to make that happen. In the past, the North has typically demanded that the US withdraw its troops from the peninsula, although at the moment they have withdrawn that as a precondition for talks. Indeed, it less that I think random observers don’t understand the nature of the North’s view of “denuclearization,” it is that I am not convinced Trump understands it.
I would recommend the following CNN piece on this topic: What US and North Korea mean when they talk about denuclearization.
Over the past decade, denuclearization in North Korea has only ever meant one thing for the United States and South Korea.
“It’s called CVID — complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean program,” said Josh Pollack, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
The language has been used consistently by the United Nations Security Council in its resolutions condemning North Korea as far back as October 2006.
“Irreversible,” in the practical sense, aims to ensure the current facilities cannot be reactivated after they’ve been dismantled, Pollack said.
Any denuclearization deal would need to include a series of “verifiable” steps for dismantling North Korea’s program, carried out under the eyes of independent observers, former Australian Prime Minister and diplomat Kevin Rudd told CNN in March.
“Unless there is independent monitoring … any unilateral undertakings by the North Koreans will probably not be worth the paper they’re written on,” he said.
BTW, this is not just a CNN analyst’s view on the subject. I attended a talk at the Alabama World Affairs Council earlier this month, where the guest speaker was Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and CIA, and a retired Air Force General. He said essentially the same thing that the CNN article noted: that “denuclearization” has long meant different things to the US and to NK (and it likely still does).
Hayden also noted a key element of this entire situation that should not be forgotten: the North Koreans have long had a goal of high-level talks between the leader of the US and the leader of North Korea. In that past, the US has treated such a meeting as a bargaining chip. Now, however, with no concessions whatsoever, the US has capitulated to this demand (at least in principle). Now, as I have noted, I am in favor of talks as a general matter. I do, however, question the haphazard way by which we have come to this point and remain highly skeptical about likely outcomes.
Indeed, I think it is wholly possible that the whole end-game for the North is having the talks, and nothing else. When Kim states ”The nuclear test site has done its job,” I think he means that a) it produced nuclear weapons, and b) it got us treated like a major power. I do not think it is some concession to bellicose tweets.
Two fundamental facts that have to be remembered in all of this:
First, the nuclear weapons are the main reason that the North is being treated as it is at the moment, and its leadership fully understands that fact. It also understands that its various missile attacks (that lead the President of the United States to sit up and take notice with his “Little Rocket Man” tweets) accomplished their primary goal: garnering attention for the regime in the international community.
Along the lines of the importance of nuclear weapons, note that Kim is fully aware that Iraq did not have nukes when it was invaded and that Libya gave up its nuclear program, and its regime is no more.
Second, this latter observation comes to the main point that one can never forget in this process: the fundamental goal of North Korea is regime survival. Given this fact, it is difficult to envision an endgame in which NK really does give up its nukes, since the nukes clearly protect the regime, and give that regime legitimacy on the international stage. Regime survival is the sine qua non of Kim’s goals, and any interpretation of these talks and actions has to recall that fact.
Back to the report that the North has not demanded withdrawal of US troops, let’s look at the exact language from the South Korean negotiator:
“The North Koreans did not present any conditions that the United States could not accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops in South Korea,” Mr. Moon told newspaper publishers in Seoul, before his own planned summit meeting with Mr. Kim next Friday.
“They only talk about an end to hostilities against their country and about getting security guarantees,” Mr. Moon said. “It’s safe to say that the plans for dialogue between the North and the United States could proceed because that has been made clear.”
When Mr. Moon’s special envoys met with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang last month, Mr. Kim said his country would no longer need nuclear weapons if it did not feel “threatened militarily” and was provided with “security guarantees.”
There are a ton of devils in those details. It is difficult to envision a settlement in which the North feels unthreatened and secure that does not ultimately mean keeping nuclear weapons or that doe not include US withdrawal from the peninsula.
And note: withdrawal from the peninsula means a degradation of US military power in a key region of the world. Regardless of one’s views on the deployment of that power, it would be no small thing for the US government to give it up. It should not be forgotten that US military bases in Korea and Japan place the US directly in the Chinese sphere of influence in a way that China does not have a reciprocal chance at parity. And while the Chinese are rivals, not enemies, a great power, such as the US, would be hard-pressed to want to retreat from that arena just to placate the North Koreans.
Let me reiterate: the nukes have done their job, the North is being treated with respect and the regime’s survival seems assured for the moment. What more could Kim want or expect? As such, I expect a lot of sound and fury that will ultimately leave us pretty much where we are.
To conclude, we have been in this general arena before:
Since the 1990s, however, North Korean officials have occasionally told the Americans and South Koreans that they could live with an American military presence if Washington signed a peace treaty and normalized ties with the North. Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, sent a party secretary to the United States in 1992 to deliver that message.
Again: the devil is very much in the details.