By Max S. Kim*
On May 24, US President Trump pulled out the rug from under the North Korean leader in their planned summit in Singapore. As I pointed out earlier, the US-North Korea summit went under way on false understandings of denuclearization. North Korea was talking a different language on the methods and scope of denuclearization right from the start, and the summit was bound to collapse without finding any point of convergence.
In his role as the slimy broker, South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in must take full diplomatic and political responsibility for the mess. Moon sent his delegate to the White House in March and delivered to the American people a crafted message that was intended to hide North Korea’s true intentions in the denuclearization talk with the Trump administration.
The 1992 Inter-Korean Pact on Denuclearization
The US position is that North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons and must completely disable its nuclear and ballistic missile program. In 1992, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung vowed it and signed an inter-Korean pact on complete denuclearization with South Korea’s then-president, Roh Tae-woo. Following the pact, the United States had all its nuclear weapons taken out from South Korea, and South Korea has never had a nuclear program of its own.
But in violation of that 1992 pact, the North Korean leader claimed in his January 2018 speech that North Korea had completed its nuclear program and possession of nukes was his country’s solemn right. Moreover, North Korean officials publicly refused abandonment of their nuclear program, talked instead about reduction of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and threatened to boycott the Trump-Kim summit.
That bellicose position is qualitatively different from the North Korean leader’s commitment to denuclearization, which the South Korean delegate conveyed to President Trump in March. The North Koreans changed their minds recently, as evident from their unrefined public rhetoric aired in recent weeks.
Obviously, China’s Xi Jinping made a secretive pledge to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and gave him a boost in their latest, unexpectedly arranged summit. Also, two other major factors appear to have contributed.
A Frustrated Kim Jong Un
The US position on denuclearization of North Korea is firm. As President Trump’s new security advisor, John Bolton pointed out, North Korea’s possession of nukes is a breach of the 1992 pact on denuclearization. Bolton’s remark effectively spoiled the recent inter-Korean scheme to trash the 1992 pact and replace it with the new declaration signed at the Moon-Kim summit in April, ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. The plot is clear: the new inter-Korean pact will put Kim in a better position for negotiations at the Trump-Kim summit.
A bigger reason is that US Congress recently passed a Defense budget that included a clause on the size of American forces stationed in South Korea: Any reduction below 22,000 troops must be approved by Congress.
That’s a stunning defeat for North Korea and China. North Korea and China made a perennial demand for withdrawal of US troops from South Korea at the negotiating table. But this time, the North Korean leader dropped the demand. Why? Because Kim Jong Un’s Communist friends in South Korea’s presidential Blue House will take the job on his behalf and push US armed forces out of the peninsula. Truth is, the two Koreas and China have now formed alliance. But their plot was shattered by the swift act of US Congress. The North Koreans then started barking.
North Korea: A Deceitful and Aggressive Country
North Korea took the wrong step of improperly closing their nuclear facility in Mt. Mantap by detonating the entrance to the underground tunnels where nuclear stockpiles are supposedly kept. Before detonation, North Korea however refused US scientists and experts, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, for inspection of their nuclear site, which was just a flawed procedure in North Korea’s denuclearization pledge made to the United States. Only journalists were allowed this time to watch the detonation from afar, and nothing was verifiable.
North Korea has built webs of underground tunnels all over its territory. Even if the nuclear test site was disabled by explosion in what was supposed to be a public show-off, few doubt there may be secret underground access to the facility. Experts also suspect the nuclear test site was partially collapsed and became unusable, due to the last six test blasts, and closing it would cost North Korea very little. The point is, North Korea closed its nuclear site in an unverifiable and extremely hasty manner, which is of paramount importance since it showed the true intentions of North Korea’s denuking overtures. By disabling the underground nuclear site, the regime was also able to conceal other details of their illicit activity done for decades.
Such unilateral action, however, only invites a military response from the United States and its allies, since it reveals Kim’s sick mind and juvenile skills in diplomacy. The world should not approach North Korea on international standards, for this insane regime does not understand the meaning of diplomacy. North Korea only knows aggression and deception, and that’s how they managed themselves for 70 years. How North Korean diplomats behave publicly at UN meetings is telling us enough. How the fate of innocent tourists, such as Otto Warmbier, ended up in the inhumane hands of the regime is telling us enough.
North Korea’s Choice
Where can North Korea go from here? The only choice North Korea now has is (a) to surrender unconditionally and accept thorough inspection, or (b) to war with the United States.
President Trump said many times that a path to prosperity would lie ahead if North Korea gives up its nuclear capabilities. His suggestion to North Korea should be read as an ultimatum: Kim will be allowed to run his country with help and protection from the United States, should North Korea abandon weapons of mass destruction and close prison camps; or Kim will be removed by force and the North Korean elite will be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court, if Kim refuses to back down and threatens the United States with his nuclear toys.
For either choice, however, the outcome is identical: The country we have known as DPRK, under the Kim family’s most brutal dictatorship, will finally disappear from the map. It is a question of when, not if. Waging war with the United States means ultra-devastation to North Korea and rebuilding the country from war debris and ash will take long. But the path for the country’s future remains the same in the end: Ordinary North Koreans deserve freedoms of speech, press, religion, as well as a new government that lets them live freely and as equal peers under law. That is President Trump’s resolve clear from his November 2017 speech at South Korea’s National Assembly.
In his May 24 speech at the White House, President Trump alluded to an impending war with North Korea as the last resort. He said the U.S. military is “ready if necessary” and South Korea and Japan “are not only ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea, but they are willing to shoulder much of the financial cost or a burden” of a conflict. It is a sharp warning to the people of South Korea and Japan that freedom has a price to pay for.
*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.