The world sure does turn quickly. One minute people are digging up Cold War-era bomb shelters in anticipation of WW3, the next Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In, are holding hands. Out of nowhere, the Hermit Kingdom commits to end the 65-year armistice that has kept the Koreas in a state of war since 1950, and not only that: denuclearisation! I call BS.
Let’s begin with what the parties want. Kim wants Moon to fight his corner against South Korea’s allies, and support the easing of sanctions on North Korea. One can expect that embedded in Kim’s demand that the US does not attack North Korea, is the withdrawal of American troops stationed in South Korea. Given that such a proposition is political suicide for any South Korean leader, and that they are there on the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 84, we can confidently assume that the US garrison is not going anywhere.
On the flip side, Moon wants Kim to express intent to denuclearise, which Kim, to his credit, has. But it is far from guaranteed that the Americans will take his word for it. Moon can speak on the behalf of South Korea, but not the US. He has thus avoided saying anything that indicates that the US will dilute their strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ until North Korea takes deliberate and verifiable steps toward genuine denuclearisation.
What we can expect are family reunions – there are 60,000 people whose families were split by the war. The images of South and North Korean families reuniting for the first time in 65 years would make for a symbolic photo-op as good as any since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Now let us consider what ‘peace’ means. How hard can it be to proceed from a 65-year armistice to a permanent peace treaty? Not so fast. Firstly, South Korea was not present when the 1953 Armistice was signed – it was signed by the Chinese, North Koreans and Americans. While there have been summits between the two Koreas, and a much-hyped Trump x Kim meeting is on the cards, there has been no public involvement from China. Yet is inconceivable that a peace treaty will fly without Beijing’ blessing. Moreover, non-parties to the treaty, including not just South Korea but also Russia and Japan, will expect to be intimately involved in the peacemaking process. In the short term, Moon and Kim will probably focus on conciliatory language, such both sides wanting hostilities to end and pursuing peaceful coexistence, leaving the much harder task of determining what that actually means till later.
And lastly, the clincher. Will North Korea, scourge of the free world and that most roguish of rogue states, denuclearise?
No. In part the North Koreans are buying time, in part they are desperate for the international community to relieve some of the pressure that’s been kept on them. Now, as much as ever, they have no good reasons to fully denuclearise – on one hand, they do not trust the Americans whatever Kim says, on the other they keep an extensive record of pariah regimes that successfully denuclearised, only to find themselves invaded. Saddam Hussein and Mummamar al-Gaddafi were both suspected of having nuclear weapons, when neither did – where are they now? Kim will also recall the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, after which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear capacity. Would Russia have annexed Crimea if it were still a nuclear power?
Furthermore, Pyongyang is watching the White House closely. Looking at his closest foreign policy advisors, like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, both old-school hawks, and their persistent rhetoric of dismantling the Iran Deal, they are understandably spooked.
Moreover, this is not the first time the North Koreans have ostensibly offered an olive branch and lofty promises of love and peace on the Korean peninsula. During the North-South denuclearization agreement in 1992, the Agreed Framework in 1994, the Pyongyang Declaration in 2002, and the six-party talks agreement in 2005, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il made similar declarations. None of these accomplished anything but buying North Korea precious time.
Thus, by pursuing a thaw in North-South relations, Kim Jong Un gets more than his fair share of the pie. At a minimum, this stratagem will alleviate the pressure from Washington, with no appreciable setback to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs. Whilst he deepens cooperation with the South, and is probably granted some much-needed aid, the prospect of peace does nothing to reduce Kim’s long-term incentives for a credible nuclear threat to protect his regime.