Putting aside the crass posturing surrounding the – as yet unconfirmed – diplomatic summit between North Korea and the United States, it’s important to ask: what constitutes ‘Mission Success’ for the international community when it comes to North Korea?
‘Mission Success’ is not North Korea’s willingness to engage in diplomatic summits and peace negotiations with international actors. That would be a conflation of the means of diplomatic success with the ends of said diplomacy.
The sustained failure of the six-party talks is one such example – North Korea has returned to the negotiating table intermittently since 2003, yet no concrete steps towards de-nuclearisation have occurred. Instead, it appears that North Korea’s nuclear programme has gone from strength to strength. Last year, North Korea successfully tested its longest ever flight of a ballistic missile. The missile travelled 3,700 miles and passed over Japan before landing in the Pacific.
North Korea is either close to achieving, or has achieved, the ability to threaten the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile. There remain doubts over whether it has the technology to miniaturise a nuclear warhead, but experts – including Ian Williams, an associate director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies – believe this is “just a matter of time”.
North Korea sees nuclear weapons as a guarantee of regime survival. It will not countenance de-nuclearisation even if the United States signs a non-aggression treaty. What else explains North Korea’s response when John Bolton, the US national security adviser, referred to Libya as a model for North Korean nuclear disarmament? Pyongyang’s reply was immediate: “(The world) knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which met miserable fates”.
The fates of Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear weapons in a 2003 deal, and Saddam Hussein, who did not possess nuclear weapons during Operation Iraqi Freedom,
are plain to see. This is the main reason why the six-party talks failed miserably – North Korea would not budge an inch when it came to de-nuclearisation.
What about the recent inter-Korean summit, where Kim pledged to work towards a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula” and a formal end to the Korean War? We’ve been here before.
Eighteen years ago, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il signed declarations about ending the Korean War and uniting the two countries. Kim Jong-il even agreed to create a joint South Korean/ North Korean industrial park in Kaesong, and to reunify families divided by the demilitarised zone (some suspect that North Korea used this particular scheme to smuggle spies into South Korea). Little has come of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy”. North Korea has not stopped its nuclear programme and continues to enslave political opponents.
Yes, negotiations are good. But Kim Jong-un is no liberal peace-maker. Negotiations are a necessary but insufficient condition for any substantial progress to be made He’s acting out of a decades-old playbook which mixes provocation with peace offerings meant to convince the international community to relax sanctions and legitimise his dictatorial regime.
It would be a mistake to treat the North Korea/United States summit as a negotiation over de-nuclearisation. President Trump and John Bolton might fantasise about stripping Kim of his nuclear arsenal and arm-twisting Pyongyang into a peace deal, but this is not happening. Kim, surely, views American promises as worth less than the paper they are written on – President Trump’s sudden reversal of the Obama-era nuclear treaty with Iran is one such example.
Any negotiation, therefore, requires American willingness to broach compromise. This means allowing North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons in return for Pyongyang’s own set of compromises. There are no two ways about it. Short of a military intervention which would entail incalculable human suffering, Pyongyong will not give up the one bargaining chip it views as essential to regime survival. In exchange, we must force North Korea to halt any future development and production of nuclear weapons. We can enforce this with regular IAEA and UN inspections, with clear rewards for sustained adherence to the deal (and, conversely, punishments if North Korea were to halt inspections or show a disregard for the deal).
These ‘rewards’ might include a gradual relaxation of sanctions, or American investment in light-water reactors. At the same time, there are some red lines that the United States cannot accede to – withdrawing troops from South Korea, for example, might lead to South Korean nuclearisation, due to a perception of profound insecurity. Instead of any genuine progress, however, I expect to see more posturing on the part of President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
If this summit does take place, Trump will brand it as a ‘historic’ (‘the BEST’) meeting, deserving of a Nobel Prize. Kim will use it as propaganda and proof that North Korea’s nuclear status gives it a seat at the table of equals.