The West should beware Korean peace trap

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  • Coming together: Kim Jong Un, the Leader of North Korea, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae In have given the hope of stability in the region for the first time this millennium (Photograph by Korea Summit Press Pool/AP)

    Coming together: Kim Jong Un, the Leader of North Korea, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae In have given the hope of stability in the region for the first time this millennium (Photograph by Korea Summit Press Pool/AP)


On the surface it looks as if the doubters were wrong.North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, travelled into South Korea yesterday to meet his counterpart. They agreed in principle at least to formally end the war that has divided the peninsula they share. Kim even agreed to a joint statement calling for the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

What’s not to like?

Plenty. To understand why, examine the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” issued by Kim and President Moon Jae In after their meeting.

Let’s start with the issue most important to America and North Korea’s neighbours — the nuclear file. The joint communique says: “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”

It also says the two states “shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard.”

Finally it pledged that both would seek help and co-operation from the international community to achieve the goal of denuclearisation.

That sounds pretty good, but it isn’t. North Koreans have historically used the phrase “denuclearisation” to mean the United States should no longer extend its nuclear umbrella to protect South Korea. As former senior State Department official Evans Revere explained in a recent policy brief for the Brookings Institution, North Korean interlocutors have explained the concept in talks to US officials and experts as “the elimination of the ‘threat’ posed by the US-South Korea alliance, by US troops on the Korean Peninsula, and by the US nuclear umbrella that defends South Korea and Japan.”

Revere goes on to say that in return for those steps that would undermine the US-South Korean alliance, North Koreans have offered to “consider denuclearisation in ten to 20 years’ time if Pyongyang feels secure”.

Maybe they mean something different this time around. But it is a red flag that Kim is agreeing to the same phrase that in past discussions has meant something very different than verifiable disarmament.

Then there is the strange language about how Kim’s recent announcement to pause missile tests is considered by both leaders “very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. It is not.

As Kim himself said in his New Year’s Day address, he no longer sees a need to test its intercontinental ballistic missiles: “We attained our general orientation and strategic goal with success, and our republic has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse.”

The real test of Kim’s commitment for denuclearisation will be measured in the level of transparency he provides to weapons inspectors and whether he will take steps to dismantle his nuclear infrastructure.

The problems with the communique, though, go beyond what both sides mean by “denuclearisation”. There is also a sickening parity in the statement that equates a vibrant democratic republic with a totalitarian slave state. The two leaders agreed to a joint event on June 15 “in which participants from all levels, including central and local governments, parliaments, political parties and civil organisations, will be involved”.

There is only one political party in North Korea and no civil organisations. It is dangerous to pretend otherwise.

Along those lines, it is particularly troubling that South Korea appears to agree to stop allowing its citizens to send leaflets over the border to break North Korea’s information monopoly over its citizens. The communique says: “The two sides agreed to transform the demilitarised zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 1 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.”

This is hugely detrimental to the North Korean people. In the past decade, more and more Koreans with the help of defectors have sent drones containing portable video players with memory sticks full of Korean soap operas and other “dangerous” cultural items into the North in the hopes of breaking the Kim regime’s information grip over his population. Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, told me this provision “means North Korea’s thought control now extends to the South”.

Finally, Donald Trump in particular should worry about what the communique between the two Koreas means for his own strategy of maximum pressure on Pyongyang unless and until the regime makes tangible concessions on the nuclear file. It references a 2007 communique between the two Koreas that pledged “economic growth and co-prosperity”. It calls for connecting roads and railways between the two Koreas. In and of itself, that is unobjectionable. However, it could be an economic lifeline that eases pressure before nuclear concessions are made.

For these reasons, Trump should be careful about next steps. He needs to make sure South Korea will not seek a separate peace with its rival. He also needs to get a better sense of the real steps Kim will take to disarm. Until then, Trump should slow the diplomacy and wait. Kim has shown he is adept at getting optimistic headlines. That is a testament to his connivance, not his intentions.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for The Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI

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Published Apr 28, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 27, 2018 at 7:07 pm)

The West should beware Korean peace trap

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