In the previous installment
in our ongoing reporting on the specter of North Korea’s rogue behavior and the confused and dysfunctional handling of the threat by the Trump administration – we uncovered a fact pattern which strongly points to Kim Jong-un changing course on his nuclear program at the behest of China.
In spite of that, the broad narrative of media coverage is focusing on the theater of Kim’s unexpected participation in diplomatic initiatives in February and even speculating that it might lead to a historic breakthrough in North Korea’s relations with the United States and its neighbors.
The story line that is being propagated by many media reports is that Kim has pivoted from an aggressive posture with his neighbors and the international community including the United States to a more conciliatory stance, because his assessment of his nuclear program has, in his thinking, provided his regime the security that enables him to pursue a sort of ‘glasnost’ scheme.
It also features the prospect of Donald Trump being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Not everyone is convinced with that recital, as we shall see.
To gauge the credibility of the new disposition of Kim and his regime, we will examine the history of a long pattern of the very same approaches employed by North Korea, for a variety of objectives.
Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, at the Arms Control Association – a Washington based think tank that advises lawmakers, the media and the public on arms control issues as related to national security, provides this summary:
“For years, the United States and the international community have tried to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and its export of ballistic missile technology. Those efforts have been replete with periods of crisis, stalemate, and tentative progress towards denuclearization, and North Korea has long been a key challenge for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.”
A history of failure
To simplify the timeline, we go back to 1992 – with the “Joint Declaration” between North and South Korea, where both countries were prohibited from testing, manufacturing, producing, receiving, possessing, storing, deploying, or using nuclear weapons.
Just two years later, the Clinton administration found it necessary to respond to North Korea’s stated intention to pull out of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by entering into a new series of negotiations with Kim Jong-Il, who was transitioning into power as Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim il-Sung’s health deteriorated and eventually died that year.
The result of that re-engagement was the “Agreed Framework”. It was, to break it down to its essentials – a deal wherein North Korea suspended development of weapon materials, mostly Plutonium, for money and energy development, refocusing the DPRK’s nuclear development towards peaceful use of nuclear power generation. That status was transitory. Next in the timeline, was a development that was remarkably analogous of the recent summit meeting in late April.
The New Kim Jong-un and ‘Dae Ja Vu’
In 2000 South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-un’s father Kim il Sung participated in a summit meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capitol. The confab, the centerpiece of what at the time was dubbed as the “Sunshine Policy” was celebrated internationally as a historic breakthrough.
Max Boot, writing in the Washington Post describes the 2000 powwow between the two leaders that was acclaimed as “historic”, but that ended in futility:
“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’.”
The talks and subsequent understandings between the two countries also was augmented by a Joint Communiqué between Washington and Pyongyang, which featured language including, “The two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.”
There was even a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Dae-jung. The bloom left the rose in rather short order. North Korea failed to live up to commitments to enact human rights reforms and to mothball weapons development. Then it emerged that Dae-jung had arranged for a $500 million bribe payment to North Korea to secure cooperation with the initiative.
North Korea then went on a spree of blatant violations of all terms they had previously affirmed. As an interesting sidenote, Trump’s newly appointed National Security Advisor, John Bolton, was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under President Bush (43) when the administration rebooted policy to address North Korea’s abandonment of the Agreed Framework.
History repeated itself again in 2007, when yet another summit was conducted, which led to nothing other than more of North Korea’s continued violations of the Six-Party talks that had produced an agreement in 2005 that yet again, required the DPRK to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”.
From that point, until the present, North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons and the means to deploy them at a breakneck pace, constantly defying international law.
Which brings matters to the present giddy prognostications of the prospect of lasting peace, cooperation and de-nuclearization.
Certain reporting interprets Kim’s move as conceived as an acknowledgment of the achievement of “byungjin”.
Byungjin is a term that signifies parallel advance leading to international recognition of North Korea as a “great socialist nuclear power”.
Because of this milestone (the veracity of which has been seriously questioned by experts) has been realized – the outline contends he can afford to adopt a new posture of appeasement. To that end, Kim has personally orchestrated what Robin Wright in the New Yorker, describes as a “charm offensive”.
The skeptics weigh in
To say that seasoned Korea observers are skeptical of this latest iteration of past failed efforts, would be an understatement. While some read the tea leaves of Kim’s recent behavior as being a transformative paradigm shift, similar to that between America and China from the early 1970’s onward and of the later rapprochement between the United States and Vietnam, others are dismissive.
Is it reasonable to believe that Kim will, in all reality, surrender the nuclear weapons program that the DPRK has invested in for a quarter of a century? Hahm Chaibong, the president of the Asan Institute, told the New Yorker, that, “To survive, Kim needs those nuclear weapons. Without the bomb and delivery systems, North Korea becomes a poor backwater country that struggles just to generate electricity.”
All that has really been produced in a material sense,to this point, is once again, word of a release of prisoners from the West, including three from the United States. That has been a frequent implement in the Kim dynasty’s toolbox to keep the West off balance and guessing how serious their intentions are.
Chung Yung-woo, a former national-security adviser and chief negotiator with North Korea, was a frequent visitor to North Korea over the years. He describes the moves that Kim is busting in these terms:
“Kim is playing a high-risk, high-return survival game. He’s far more sophisticated than his grandfather. He’s far more strategic, not swayed by emotions. That’s why he wins every time he plays games with the outside world. So far, he’s never lost a bet.”
David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, says that, “unless a firm foundation and plan for North Korea’s complete verified irreversible nuclear disarmament is laid out with a relatively short schedule (two-three years), most of the other commitments in the declaration are merely wishes.”
The Trump factor
That is only half of the questions concerning the prospects for a new and more importantly successful settlement between North Korea and the international community. The other half has to do with reservations that critics of the Trump administration have about Trump’s capability to competently execute an agreement that lives up not only to its terms but the hype that is surrounding it – including the typical premature boasting from Trump himself in this tweet.
The myth of Donald Trump as a successful dealmaker has been shattered by the consistently erratic behavior of Trump in the 18 months since he has been in office. I realize “consistantly erratic” is an oxymoron, but that is what we’re seeing in Trump and why a lot of veteran observers of the North Korean situation are trading short on anything that would alter the persistent arc of failure that history has shown.
Abraham Denmark, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense who is now the director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, says that, “Kim is still the same person he was when he purged potential rivals, imprisoned thousands of his people, and had his relatives killed. Extreme caution is well warranted – there are innumerable opportunities for failure.”
Donald Trump is the same president who has a penchant for misrepresenting facts, ignoring advice from staffers and cabinet officials, neglecting policy briefings and making irresponsible, peremptory and misinformed statements.
Yet, the Republican party is promoting a campaign to crown Trump with success, even with the substantial history of failure of these initiatives. Eighteen House Republicans signed a letter nominating Trump for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. The document was sent to the Norwegian Nobel committee in Oslo, Norway on Wednesday.
Trump’s prospects for such an achievement are still shadowed by his statements indicating a willingness to shred the existing agreement with Iran that has suspended its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. All bets may be off, if Trump inks one agreement that may or may not be lasting, while simultaneously tearing up another one in a very volatile region of the world.