Who knew that the Japanese would be the most clear-headed about North Korea?
Prior to the 2018 Singapore Summit, there was a certain level of anxiety in the air among Japanese commentators, who feared that President Donald Trump might give up too much for too little, namely the prospect that he would offer to withdraw American troops from South Korea and Japan for a promise from the North Korean government to halt their US mainland strike capabilities.
This did not happen, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly warned that the South Koreans and the United States should not fall for North Korea’s “Smiling Diplomacy.” The premise of this strategy is that a rogue nation like North Korea tries to present itself in a cooperative light, but doesn’t actually take any concrete steps towards denuclearization.
Abe was correct. In the past year, the Trump Administration, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the media have heralded moves like the Singapore S
ummit, and the prospective signing of a peace treaty between North and South Korea as legitimate steps toward peace on the peninsula. However, this is overly-optimistic, and it seems more likely than not that the North Koreans are successfully manipulating both Seoul and Washington. It is for this reason why President Trump should not meet with DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
It seems that many people in Washington and Seoul have adopted a narrative that Kim Jong-un is a young reformer who wants to improve the welfare of his people by opening up to the West and reconciling with the South, the United States, and even Japan. This is what Korea expert Victor D. Cha had dubbed the “fairy tale” narrative on North Korea. Accepting the “fairy tale” narrative at face value is a dangerous and foolish proposition and the leadership in Washington and Seoul must continue a hardline stance against North Korea.
North Korea Never Took any Real Steps Toward Peace
North Korea attempted to signal its true commitment to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through publicly destroying the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. However, as the BBC reported, the test site was rendered useless after it partially collapsed during the last test in September 2017. As the test site was likely going to be shut down anyway, North Korea was clearly not taking a genuine step in dismantling its nuclear program Instead, Puggye-ri’s destruction was simply a theatrical façade for a pre-selected group of journalists made possible by convenient timing. Despite these obvious theatrics behind it, the move was highly praised by both Washington and Seoul as a major step towards denuclearization.
In addition to the apparent façade at Puggye-ri, there has recently been evidence that the North Korean pledges toward denuclearization, which President Trump hailed as a victory resulting from his summit in Singapore, have not been upheld. In view of satellite photos published by the New York Times, there have been indications that North Korean production of nuclear material and weapons has continued at 16 secret bases following the summit. Even in view of this evidence, both the US State Department and the Blue House have dismissed the reports, claiming that they are unaware of this deception. Yet neither the US nor South Korea seem to be taking any necessary punitive action, instead rewarding the North Korean dictator with another propaganda victory via a second summit in Hanoi. It is almost as if both governments are allowing themselves to be deceived.
In addition to the deception at Puggye-ri and in those 16 secret bases, history will also show that North Korea’s word does not mean anything without concrete concessions by the rogue regime. In fact, when North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, it pledged to work to dismantle its nuclear program. This agreement was followed by extensive efforts by South Korea to ease tensions with the rogue state through what was known as the Sunshine Policy. Under this policy, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (under whom Moon served as Chief of Staff) made extensive efforts to improve inter-Korean relations, even at the expense of good relations with the US, through holding summits with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, the provision of humanitarian aid, and extensive cultural exchanges between the two nations. While on the surface it seemed that relations were improving, North Korea used Roh’s rapprochement as an opportunity to covertly continue its nuclear program, for the rogue state successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 2006.
Despite the mistakes made by the Roh administration during the Sunshine Policy, however, President Moon seems to be making the same mistakes in taking steps to ease tensions with North Korea. In fact, South Korea has recently pledged to end several military exercises with the United States, proposed to impose a no-fly zone over the DMZ, and to begin gradually remove landmines and guard posts in the Demilitarized Zone, despite strong objections by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As seen during the Sunshine Policy, North Korea has yet to reciprocate these actions with anything more than nice photo-ops. As a result, all South Korea is doing by not holding military exercises and de-mining the DMZ is weakening their deterrence against North Korea, and creating divisions with the United States. This plays right into North Korea’s hands, for it has long been an objective of Pyongyang to create divisions between the United States and South Korea, and thus weaken the American stance against the regime. North Korea has therefore done nothing to show that it is genuinely interested in peace. Instead, all evidence points to the contrary.
North Korea has Been Trying to Get Us to the Table for Years. That’s a Bad Thing.
When Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking defector from North Korea testified before Congress in November of 2017, he stated that it has always been the primary objective of the Pyongyang regime to forcibly reunify the peninsula under their control. To achieve this goal, they aim to remove the United States troop presence in the region.
Thae testified that the rationale of Pyongyang is to use long-range missiles as leverage to bring the United States to the negotiating table and negotiate a withdrawal of American forces from Korea. This, Kim Jong-un believes, would lead to a situation like what was seen following the Paris Peace Accords of 1972, where South Vietnam was significantly weakened following the withdrawal of American forces to the point where North Vietnam and the Viet Cong managed to occupy Saigon by 1975. The election of a dovish South Korean president like Moon, and the election of Donald Trump, who has expressed skepticism over having a troop presence in the region clearly presented Pyongyang with a prime opportunity to try to tilt the inter-Korean conflict in their favor.
At the end of the day, we must recognize that North Korea can never be trusted to abandon its aggressive behavior for the greater good of peace on the Korean peninsula. We should remind ourselves that in every instance since its invasion of the South on June 25, 1950, North Korea has always been the original aggressor, and the rogue regime seldom keeps its word on the international stage. In fact, the only thing that prompted the 1950 invasion was a belief that the United States would not defend the South. In view of this history, and the past failures of engaging in dialogue and rapprochement towards North Korea, a second summit is a bad idea. The only thing that can assure peace on the peninsula is an unbreakable US commitment to defend our allies, and not fall for North Korea’s attempts at seduction and deception through high level summits like Singapore, or the upcoming Hanoi summit.
This is a conflict that should be managed rather than resolved, and we must therefore continue to act as a strong deterrent against North Korean aggression by preserving our troop presence in the South, and not let North Korea’s attempts at Smiling Diplomacy weaken our stance, or that of South Korea, against the rogue regime. If that means maintaining hostile relations with North Korea, that is an acceptable price to pay, for it would surely be far more reprehensible to make any kind of agreement with Pyongyang that would endanger the security of East Asia and the United States.
Photo credit Shealah Craighead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons