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Notes on North Korea


There’s no doubt that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in qualifies as historic. At the same time, it’s really too soon to say if this marks a genuine turning point or will go down as yet another false start in the DPRK-ROK relationship.

What’s going on? I would immediately distrust any analysis that is offered with high levels of confidence. So here are some things to consider.

First, Americans tend to ascribe too much agency to the United States and its leadership, and not enough to other actors in the world. Nicholas Kristoff ‘credits’ Trump’s rhetoric, but emphasizes the role played by Moon and Kim:

President Trump’s tightening of sanctions and his 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 meeting.

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.”

Keep in mind that Moon campaigned on a pledge to resume a “sunshine policy” toward North Korea. Kim would love to erode sanctions and demonstrate his international status without having to actually give up his nuclear weapons.

Second, North Korea likely doesn’t need to test more nuclear weapons. To quote a knowledgeable friend, North Korea’s “statement on the closure of the test site also makes the claim that they are satisfied with their designs and no longer need to test. This is quite plausible. Both India and Pakistan have tested a total of 6 devices each, which is the same number of tests that NK has conducted. At this point in time, the science of nuclear weapons is very well understood. Building a nuclear weapon is primarily an engineering problem. Once you are confident that your designs work, more tests are just wasting your precious fissile material, which is the primary limitation on the size of your stockpile.” Of course, if the claims that North Korea’s test site has collapsed are true, Kim may not have a ton of short-term options other than to declare the program a success.

Third, did I mention skepticism? That same friend notes “it’s quite possible that Kim is consolidating his gains. When KJU says that DPRK is rejoining the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] as a non-nuclear weapons state and signing an Additional Protocol, then I’ll sit up and listen. It’s fascinating the way that the same people who are COMPLETELY convinced that Iran is cheating on the JCPOA seem to buying [Kim] hook, line, and sinker, when [North Korea] has a long history of cheating on their agreements and hiding their [nuclear weapons] program.

Fourth, despite Trump’s claims of success, additional challenges lie ahead. Heather Hurlburt writes:

Of the three leaders, Trump’s position is the most vulnerable. Kim and Moon’s power bases will each find themselves able to live with outcomes that do not roll back Pyongyang’s weapons capability, or leave details vague and off in the future. The national security community around Trump — including his own national security adviser and secretary of State, as well as congressional Republicans and not a few Democrats — will not.

The longtime bipartisan consensus on Korea policy said that a summit, and the start of talks to officially end the Korean War, should be rewards for tangible steps toward disarmament from the North. That approach is no longer tenable, and the strategic adjustment will be painful — especially as Trump and his colleagues busily prepare to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, the best model of an approach that controls and limits a country’s nuclear program without returning it to zero.

Trump had carefully positioned himself as agnostic about whether he would go to a summit, saying he would wait to see what developed. The perception of success from Panmunjom gives him less wiggle room. And while he may be able to manage the expectations of his supporters, and perhaps even his Republican Party colleagues, with a few tweets, the same will not be true for Seoul, Pyongyang, and — watching quietly — Beijing.

That’s all that I’ve got for now. Thoughts?

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