North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1950s, and I don’t know any expert who thinks that it will genuinely hand over its arsenal.
North Korea doesn’t have enough food, it lacks Facebook and Beyoncé, and its diplomats have to ration their use of computers in the Foreign Ministry because of electricity shortages.
But North Korea excels at choreography and theater, and its officials are well-educated, very savvy, and agile with a pirouette. So we have peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula — and President Trump gets some credit for that.
As with any circus performance, it’s amazing to behold but not quite as billed.
As Kim Jong Un stepped into South Korea — the first North Korean leader to do so — let’s acknowledge that he has played a weak hand exceptionally well. Kim is now aiming to squirm out of sanctions, build up his economy and retain his nuclear arsenal, all while remaining a global focus of attention. It’s a remarkable performance.
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“North Korea expert” is an oxymoron, but as someone who has been covering the country since the 1980s, here’s my take on why we should be deeply skeptical — and yet relieved, even a bit hopeful.
President Trump’s tightening of sanctions and belligerent rhetoric genuinely did change the equation. All this was meant to intimidate Kim, but it mostly alarmed President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and galvanized him to undertake successful Olympic diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the North-South summit.
Kim then parlayed that progress into meetings with both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of which reflected longtime North Korean goals. And on Friday Kim and Moon adopted a declaration promising “no more war,” “a new era of peace,” and “complete denuclearization.”
Inspiring, but count me skeptical.
North and South Korean leaders have signed grand peace documents before, in 2000 and 2007, and neither lasted. In 2012, North Korea agreed not to test missiles and then weeks later fired one off but called it a “satellite” launch.
When North Korea talks about “complete denuclearization,” it typically means that the U.S. ends its alliance with South Korea, and then North Korea will no longer need nuclear weapons to defend itself. North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1950s, and I don’t know any expert who thinks that it will genuinely hand over its arsenal.
Kim’s game plan seems to be to sign pledges for denuclearization, leaving details to be worked out in follow-up talks, knowing that they won’t be fully implemented and that there will never be intrusive inspections.
This may be disingenuous on the part of North Korea, but frankly that’s not the worst thing: It provides a face-saving way for both North Korea and the U.S. to back away from the precipice of war.
President Trump and Kim Jong Un both badly want a meeting, so expect North Korea to release its three American detainees in the coming weeks and to make soothing statements. Trump and Kim will present themselves as historic peacemakers as they sign some kind of declaration calling for peace and denuclearization, with some kind of timetable.
Trump’s aides will then say that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize more than Obama did.
I hope that Trump will also raise human-rights issues. A commission of inquiry suggested that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity “on a massive scale” in its labor camps, and we should push for humanitarian access to these camp.
In the meantime, the North will halt all nuclear and missile testing, and will stop production of plutonium at its reactors in Yongbyon. In exchange, China and South Korea will quietly ease sanctions — and Kim will get what he has always wanted, the legitimacy of being treated as a world leader, as an equal, and as the ruler of a de facto nuclear state.
Both Kim and Trump benefit politically from that scenario, and for that matter so does the world: Hard-liners would fume that we’re being played and that the North is not verifiably giving up nuclear weapons — true — but it’s all preferable to war.
In effect, this is a backdoor route to a nuclear cap or to the “freeze for a freeze” solution that North Korea and China have previously recommended and that Trump has rejected.
It may all fall apart. But it’s possible now to envision a path away from war, and for that even we skeptics should be grateful.