By Kelly Lundeen
Summer Quarterly, 2018
Updated June 21, 2018
Extreme fluctuations in relations between North Korea and the rest of the world in recent months have kept war hawks and peace doves at the edge of their seats. At one moment the United States and North Korea were lobbing nuclear threats at one another, sounding closer than ever in recent history to a potential military conflict. In the next moment, North and South Korea were signing a “Peace Declaration” to denuclearize the Korean peninsula at an unprecedented meeting in the Demilitarized Zone. A historic summit between the presidents of North Korea and the United States was announced, then cancelled by Mr. Trump, and, then went ahead. Finally the Singapore Summit brought a sigh of cautious relief with many hopeful signs that relations will continue in the direction of peace. The new approaches to these relations are in line with the agendas of changing leadership of the three countries and understanding those help explain the unfolding news.
What’s in it for the US?
As North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state, the official US government position was to demand “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.” Skeptics of the motives behind US leadership allege that the summit was planned to fail; that is, the US projects an image of working toward reconciliation while never having disavowed bellicose intentions. A week after the Summit, those fears have yet to be affirmed.
Throwing a curveball into the decades-long US policy of military threats, diplomatic hostility, and harsh trade sanctions, is the US “dealmaker” seeking to fulfill his need for celebrity, and desires for economic expansion into new territories and cutting military costs related to defense of other nations.
“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” suggested South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This absurd prospect may have strategically furthered the continued opening of diplomatic relations with North Korea. The tension between those supporting long-standing US policy and others embracing Trump’s chaotic treatment of North Korean President Kim Jong-un (calling him a “madman” one month and “honorable” the next) has led to roller coaster relations.
The North Korean Deterrent
North Koreans have a justified fear that the US is looking for regime change. Both John Bolton, the recently appointed National Security Advisor, and Vice President Mike Pence have promoted the “Libyan model” in relation to the North. In Libya, relief from sanctions was offered in exchange for international oversight as the country relinquished its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite Libya’s disarmament, it was bombarded by the US and NATO allies in 2011, and Col. Muammar Gaddafi was publicly assassinated by US-supported militias. Additionally, the North views the regular joint military exercises by the US and South Korea as rehearsals for invasion and regime change. On June 17 Trump announced a halt to the exercises which he even referred as “war games.” The North has long offered denuclearization in exchange for a halt to the exercises and a non-aggression pact.
Again in May, a statement from the South Korean president’s office said: “The North showed willingness on denuclearization…. If military threats to North Korea decrease and regime safety is guaranteed, the North showed that it has no reason to retain nukes.” And now, that was agreed to in the peace agreement in Singapore. North Korea agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while the United States “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea.
What Does North Korea Want?
In 2017 there was a New Year’s announcement that the North was close to completing its nuclear program, and at the end of the year the government declared that mission accomplished. Tim Shorrock, who writes for the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism and The Nation, who was raised in South Korea and Japan, remarked about the nuclear weapons program that, Kim “does have the weapons, though [the] interesting thing about his program last year was that they stopped short of actually getting a weapon onto a missile that can enter the atmosphere and hit a target. So, they do not have a nuclear-armed ICBM that can hit the United States at this time. They may be two or three years away from that.”
High on the North Korean priority list are a peace treaty, a non-aggression pact, an end to the military drills, but also energy and food to ameliorate chronic malnourishment. “The policy of the North Koreans has been something called the Byungjin Line and it has been a dual track. One has been the pursuit of its nuclear and missile program,” said Christine Ahn, of Women Cross DMZ. “The other track has been improving the economy of North Korea, and that is so critical to understanding what is the incentive also for North Korea to be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, because they want so much to advance their economy,” she said.
Prospects and Progress
Whatever may happen between the United States and North Korea, there are high expectations for realization of parts of the Declaration of Peace between South and North Korea. That is what drove the South Korean grassroots movement that led the candlelight revolution when, according to Ahn, “almost for half a year where one in three South Koreans, 16 million people took to the streets to call for the impeachment of [President] Park Geun-hye” and in turn elected Moon Jae-in. Within two months of being elected Moon Jae-in reached out to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to meet. On Jan 1, 2018 Kim accepted the offer, followed by a slew of diplomatic moves fostering new levels of trust and common ground among the US, South Korea and North Korea. On April 27 the two Korean leaders met in Panmunjeom. Kim Jong-un was the first North Korean leader to ever set foot inside South Korea.
Some of the points in the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace can be pursued independently between the Koreas. In the Declaration Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un pledged “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.” In the brief document they agreed to three points to improve relations between the Koreas, alleviate military tension and establish a peace regime, determining the future of the “Korean nation on their own accord.”
Some of the specific points of the Declaration have begun to be fulfilled. The week after it was signed, South Korea ended their loudspeaker broadcast into North Korea. South Korean police even prevented activists from unloading a truck with 5,000 anti-North Korean leaflets. North Korea shifted its clocks by 30 minutes to be in sync with South Korea. A direct telephone link between the two leaders has been set up.
Other gestures indicating openness to reconciliation have been made. In addition to freezing nuclear weapons testing, North Korea has unilaterally destroyed its underground nuclear testing facility, and on May 9 released three United States prisoners. In the Singapore Summit North Korea also committed to returning remains of US veterans of the Korean War.
Even the United States has made concessions. According to the New York Times on May 3, Trump ordered the Pentagon to find ways to reduce the number of troops in South Korea. Later in May Trump abandoned further sanctions that he had been seeking.
The South Korean movement that nonviolently overthrew Park Geun-hye lit the fire for peace in Korea. The momentum for peace has been built and shot down over and over. Today it is moving in a direction that lets the doves be optimistic about one thing for the first time in a long time, even if for a brief moment.
—Sources: “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit”, June 12, 2018; Wall Street Journal, May 28; Agence France Presse, May 6; New York Times, May 3; The Intercept, May 2; Democracy Now!, April 30; “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” April 27, 2018