April 30, 2018
Following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to China in late March, I said that though many would still say that he remains a ruthless dictator, some may start thinking that he plays his foreign policy cards rather well (*). Indeed, his whirlwind diplomatic campaign upends the title of “reclusive ruler” attributed to him in the West. Six days before meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he declared in a display of confidence that he will suspend nuclear and missile tests and will shut down the testing-site where the previous six nuclear tests were conducted. The announcement received broad international welcome. South Korea’s Presidency said in a statement that this was a meaningful step forward. And days before meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea came the pivot away from nuclear testing toward the economy. Following the announcement regarding the suspension of nuclear and missile tests President Trump tweeted “This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!” But during his joint press conference with President Macron on April 24, when asked what complete denuclearization meant he responded “It means they get rid of their nukes. Very simple…”
The reality is that this may not be so simple. The closing of the site where North Korea conducted nuclear tests since 2006 only means that Kim Jong-un now believes that his country has reached the status of a nuclear power. Both India and Pakistan had each conducted six nuclear tests until 1998 when they joined the nuclear club. One can only expect therefore that at their summit President Trump would insist on rapid denuclearization while Kim Jong-un will elaborate on the need to normalize relations, at least a gradual lifting of sanctions while dangling the carrot of denuclearization. The wisdom of nuclear non-proliferation for world security aside, achieving nuclear power status greatly raises a country’s global standing and after years of investment Kim Jong-un is unlikely to give that up easily for a U.S. commitment not to invade his country. The best possible outcome could be launching of a “process toward denuclearization”. And if he were to walk out of the meeting “with respect” as he has promised, President Trump may again find himself in a conundrum not entirely unlike the one with Iran where the rest of the world would prefer walking the path of “a process” as opposed to new tensions.
Last Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the line that has divided the Korean Peninsula for the last 65 years, for a historic summit with President Moon Jae-in. The visit was broadcast live across the world. Their displays of camaraderie could make Presidents Trump and Macron jealous. The two leaders signed the three-page “Panmunjom Declaration,” which mentions the ushering in of a new era of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity, alleviating military tension and establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. The declaration also confirms the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” However, this is the last item coming after measures to ensure the normalization of relations between the two Koreas.
The two leaders also had one-to-one chats. Could Kim Jong-un, during these private moments, have told President Moon Jae-in that North Korea had undertaken enormous sacrifice to build its nuclear arsenal which could also be an asset for a reunited Korea hopefully not in a too distant future; that for the time being the two Koreas should try to keep their options open; that Korea has experienced foreign invasions in the past and a reunited nuclear Korea of eighty million people with a vibrant economy could become a global power. Could President Moon brush off the suggestion right away and say denuclearization must be the first step or would he give his interlocutor the benefit of the doubt? What would President Trump think of the prospect? What about other regional countries, particularly Japan?
The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a multidimensional issue. It is not just about scrapping North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in record time.
Reuters reported on June 29, 2016 that Kim Jon-un was made chairman of the State Affairs Commission, a new body established under a revised constitution adopted by the parliament and which replaces the powerful National Defense Commission. His full title is now “Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army”. Apparently, he is shortly referred to as the “Supreme leader”.
Thus, President Trump is now confronted with two supreme leaders, Ayatollah Khamenei in Teheran and Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. He needs a coherent strategy to balance what has been achieved with the former, with what can realistically be achieved with the latter.