This morning, a flurry of major news from the Korean Peninsula has set the Korea-watching world aflutter.
It appears that major diplomatic breakthroughs have been made between Pyongyang and Seoul. But before you break out the good soju, it is worth examining what’s been reported and what it actually means.
A team of high-ranking South Korean officials attended a four-hour dinner with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. This was the first ever meeting between South Korean officials and Kim.
Seoul sent a team consisting of intelligence, policy and coordination officials to be sure that all aspects of discussions would be covered. The talks appear to have been wide-ranging and some major developments have indeed been reported.
The unequivocal good news is the agreement to reestablish a presidential hotline between the two states. This is an important development and will help to deescalate any tension between the North and South by allowing for immediate and authenticated communication in the event of either a provocation or a misunderstanding.
The two sides have also agreed to hold talks between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April in the truce village of Panmunjom. Pyongyang has also agreed to put denuclearization on the table with talks with the United States.
Moreover, Kim has agreed not to conduct any nuclear or ballistic missile tests while these talks take place. And, in a particularly important twist, he has said that he understands joint US-South Korea military exercises will continue. Many had thought that he would insist on a freeze in joint exercises in exchange for a freeze in testing.
It is always better to talk than not to talk, but there is a reality that we all need to accept: North Korea will not denuclearize.
Kim Jong Un knows that the only thing guaranteeing his regime’s survival is his nuclear weapons — and that the only thing guaranteeing his destruction is using them.
So here is his calculation: if you were Kim, which would you trust more — a promise from Donald Trump or your own nuclear arsenal?
Kim Jong Un has said that he would give up his nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees and normalization of relations with the US, but this is not entirely new.
In July, Reuters reported: “Pyongyang will not negotiate with the United States to give up those weapons until Washington abandons its hostile policy against the North, KCNA [North Korean state media] quoted Kim as saying.”
The new development is that Kim will begin talks without preconditions, though it remains to be seen if the United States would agree to denuclearization shifting from a precondition to a goal.
Kim likely means that denuclearization will come only after the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula and an end to the US nuclear umbrella.
This may be tempting to President Trump, whose disdain for alliances is now well-documented — and who is, mystifyingly, attacking South Korea on trade issues across a number of fronts. But it should be a nonstarter for Seoul.
In effect, Kim is asking for a concession that would be difficult to reverse — withdrawal of US Forces Korea — in exchange for a concession that would be easy to ignore — a promise to cease the nuclear and missile program.
There is nothing that can realistically be done to eliminate North Korean security concerns. How, for example, could North Korea ever know with certainty that the US would not attack them with submarine-launched ballistic missiles?
North Korea has a history of breaking its agreements, and there is little reason to trust that Pyongyang would end its nuclear weapons program, let alone eliminate the weapons it currently possesses.
But that does not mean Seoul (and the US) shouldn’t negotiate. President Moon and his team are not naive. They understand it is unlikely that Kim will give up his nuclear weapons, and while they value the US alliance, they also share a common interest with the North — the prevention of a US attack.
President Trump’s inconsistency and bellicosity will not result in a denuclearized North Korea, but the fear of a US attack in both North and South may result in a de-escalation of tensions.
And the reality of the New Trump Era is that avoiding an unnecessary second Korean War would count as a major foreign policy victory for both Washington and Seoul.