By Max S. Kim*
North Korean leader Kim finally walked out to the Western world and met with US President Trump. This historic engagement means much for the future of the reclusive country, which has earned an international reputation for its continued pathological and lawless behavior. Trump has done enough on the international stage and showed the outcast regime remarkable patience and humanity. The ball is now in Kim’s court.
It is noteworthy that, for the first time, North Korea broke the protocols of keeping the leader’s whereabouts ultra-secret. The state-run media announced Kim’s trip to Singapore ahead of the summit and even mentioned Kim was aboard an Air China 747 flight for his trip, instead of his outdated and unreliable Soviet-era jet. These are signs of unprecedented openness by the isolated Orwellian regime, which has long established that the leader’s safety and well-being are the sole reason for the existence of the regime and its people. The implications are breathtaking, and the unthinkable probably have already started.
The process of North Korea’s denuclearization as an essential part of peace building with the United States cannot go backward once it takes off on the international stage of this caliber. Should the signed agreement be revoked by North Korea, the United States would be justified to wage war with the regime with full moral support from the American people and the allies. Trump has taken pains to avoid the course of action his predecessor took for Iraq. This is truly good for the people in North Korea and for the world and, with some cautionary and optimistic notes, it can be said that another potentially devastating war was narrowly averted.
But we should not forget that it is President Trump’s resolve and US military readiness that have reversed the course and forced Kim to surrender. Last winter, Trump gave the Pentagon a green light to attack, but North Korea escaped a war by the hair’s breadth when Kim chose to guard down and came out to the open. History may liken this Singapore summit to Japan’s Instrument of Surrender aboard USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. Among Trump’s ten books for deep reading is the Art of War by Sun Tzu, a highly influential and widely read Chinese military strategist of the fifth century BC, who said “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
News media poured out two diametrically opposing commentaries and analyses of Trump’s handling of North Korea: a colossal failure vs. a huge success. Suffice it to say that Kim took humiliation and waved white flags because he had no other choice. The road ahead to complete denuclearization depends entirely on Kim’s action, and the world will watch how sincerely and well North Korea is going to keep their promise. Trump had a mindful movie trailer entitled Two Men, Two Leaders, One Destiny, played for Kim during the summit. What better captures the tone of this summit?
The United States has demanded complete denuclearization of North Korea, and North Korea has, in return, asked for complete security guarantees. On the surface, these two demands may seem incompatible and imply a virtual dead end. By Occam’s Razor, however, there may be a point of convergence and both sides can find a way out, if they genuinely want healthy long-term relations and seek peace and prosperity. If the two sides become allies, the dead end will dissolve as a mirage. The prosperous path of Japan after WWII under US influence and alliance is a good model for North Korea, too.
It is an interesting misconception that North Korea is solely ruled by Kim Jong Un. The system has undergone internal change with ramifications to the power elite in natural ways, as it evolved over time and has found its own life. This regime, too, has characteristics of a living organization and can act as a group on matters of vital national interest. Their group action was clearly seen when the elite decided to have Kim’s uncle and number 2 strongman, Jang Song Thaek, executed in 2013. A small portion of the elite in Pyongyang has formed a super-wealthy class called donju and they wield considerable power. Does the elite want to go to war with the United States and have themselves devastated for nothing? Kim’s several summits help us gauge choreographed moves in the background that indicate group-stage decisions and preparedness within the regime.
The whole Korean situation, in fact, has resulted from interests of the world’s powers since the 1945 Yalta Conference. Is anything wrong or inconceivable if North Korea sides with the United States instead and keeps a distance from its cold-war allies, China and Russia? Chairman Mao distanced himself from the Soviet Union after his meeting with then-president Nixon in 1972. Geopolitical and economic situations change, and so does international politics. From the ruins and debris of the Korean War, the South has risen as an economic power with US help, whereas the North has remained an impoverished pariah state under Chinese influence. North Korea has every reason to get out of the cycle of degeneration and maniacal obsession. It is understandable why Trump calls North Korea’s denuclearization a “process” and the one-page agreement signed with Kim at the summit a “comprehensive” document. It reminds us of the Treaty of Kanagawa between Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate and US Commodore Perry in 1854.
Some foreseeable or potential roadblocks to peace building between the United States and North Korea include (a) Chinese interference in the process and (b) abrupt change in political situations in North Korea. Kim’s adversaries are not just “hostile US forces in South Korea.” Domestic dissidents and regime-internal political and military groups closely linked to China are serious threats to Kim’s rule.
There were revolts and coup attempt against the Kim family in the past, but the state’s tight control and surveillance system successfully blocked them. A weakened control system in the peace-building process with the United States might however encourage inside attempts for power and impede the peace process. Also, Beijing is unlikely to watch a US-North Korea alliance with arms crossed; Beijing would almost certainly interpose into the process and try to keep North Korea under their influence. But China has difficulty of sorts in other fronts, including the uncertainty of their ambitious, yet bleeding, One-Belt-One-Road project, recent developments in US-Taiwan relations, and the on-going trade war with the United States. Thus, Beijing’s attempt to interfere with Pyongyang probably would not have much success, but that’s where cautionary notes are certainly called for.
It is our hope and responsibility to have a better future on a different timeline.
*Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.