Press euphoria over the upcoming Singapore summit (a good choice of the locale as a city-state with a reputation as an honest broker) has led to proclamations that, after over sixty years of barely restrained hostility, peace may finally break out in short order on the Korean peninsula.
However, a word of caution is needed: past summits with dictators with hidden agendas have not always gone well. President Trump, in his summit announcement tweet stating that “we will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace” might wish to recall the promise of former UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that the Munich summit with one Adolf Hitler would bring “peace for our time.”
Closer to home, one might also recall former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s June 2000 summit with Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il. That meeting not only garnered Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize but also an ugly scandal involving an almost USD$200 million pre-summit “pay to play” payoff to Pyongyang.
Then there was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s October 2000 Pyongyang tryst with Kim Jong Il, where they reportedly were buddy-buddy and exchanged email addresses.
That meeting was supposed to prepare for a U.S. presidential visit as well as to propel the Agreed Framework forward – until it was discovered Pyongyang was cheating with highly enriched uranium (HEU) development. That was followed by former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s own September 2002 Pyongyang rendezvous with Kim Jong Il, at which North Korea’s Dear Leader finally admitted that Pyongyang did indeed have “rogue elements” who abducted Japanese citizens.
But as the Japan Times noted in September 2017 “for the 15 years since then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a historic visit to North Korea, little substantive progress has been made on Japan’s efforts to bring back Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents.”
In this regard, the Trump administration is to be lauded for the recent release of three U.S. citizens by Pyongyang. The fact that they were left languishing in the North Korean gulag for nearly a year following the tragic death of Caucasian UVA student Otto Warmbier at the hands of the North Koreans, which received extensive press coverage, however, raises its own questions about the priority of leaving no American behind.
BEEN HERE, DONE THAT
Another example of failed North Korean nuclear diplomacy was the staged blowing up of the reportedly largely defunct cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear facility for the benefit of then-North Korea negotiator Ambassador Chris Hill and CNN back in June 2008. The Guardian newspaper said at the time of the blast that “North Korea today took a dramatic and visually symbolic step towards dismantling its atomic arsenal by blowing up a 20-meter cooling tower at its main reactor complex.”
But within six months the Six-Party negotiations on North Korean denuclearization would collapse and within the next nine years, Pyongyang would conduct an additional five nuclear tests.
Then there was the brief attempt by the “No Drama Obama” administration to engage Pyongyang with the soon aborted “Leap Day Deal” of February 2012. It fell apart in little over a month when North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered a long-range ballistic missile launch near the April anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birthday that scuttled the negotiations in short order.
Kim the younger appears to be just as evasive in his new negotiations with the Trump administration as he was back on Leap Day in 2012. His April offer to “close down” North Korea’s “main nuclear testing site” at Punggye-ri sometime in May, as reported by NPR, appears to be the equivalent of selling Donald Trump the Brooklyn Bridge.
As the South China Morning Post reported on April 26, “North Korea’s nuclear test site has collapsed…and that may be why Kim Jong-un suspended tests.” The article quoted Chinese researchers and scientists who had concluded that the “mountain’s collapse” after a blast last fall “has led to the creation of a massive ‘chimney’ that could leak radioactive fallout into the air.”
And while the Young General might consider North Korean radiation victims to be collateral damage, the proximity of the Punggye-ri test site to the Chinese and Russian borders is highly problematic: even Kim Jong Un would hesitate in risking the possibility of Chinese and Russian civilians coming down with radiation sickness because of his ongoing nuclear activities.
Soon after Kim Jong Un assumed power… a parliamentary session revised the constitution to declare North Korea “a nuclear weapons state.”
THE LIBYA MODEL
Then the ultimate objective of American negotiators raises questions. The new national security adviser John Bolton suggested on a Sunday talk show on April 29 that the United States is using “the Libya model” as it seeks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But as President Trump himself recognized in an April 2017 CBS interview, Kim Jong Un is “a pretty smart cookie.”
President Trump added that “at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it.” Well, such a “smart cookie” would never fall for the ploy of the “Libya model” with Western assurances of regime preservation.
I served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee fifteen years ago when then-Democratic Ranking Member Tom Lantos engaged in shuttle diplomacy to Tripoli to help sell Muammar Gaddafi on the denuclearization deal.
“Give up your weapons of mass destruction and you will be okay,” was the message. Then in 2011 came the Arab Spring and NATO intervention in Libya. Suddenly Gaddafi was not okay. That October Gaddafi hid in a drain pipe until he was dragged out and tortured and killed by rebel forces.
Not a pretty picture for the wily Kim Jong Un to contemplate.
There is also the continued U.S. mantra of CVID – “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea. This ignores the fact that soon after Kim Jong Un assumed power, in April 2012, a parliamentary session revised the constitution to declare North Korea “a nuclear weapons state.”
Why would Pyongyang ever backtrack on this? Nuclear weapons, along with economic development, form a core principle of Kim Jong Un’s two-pronged byungjin (parallel development) strategy. Certainly, the “smart cookie” Kim Jong Un is fully aware that, without the leverage of a nuclear arsenal which can potentially threaten the American mainland, no U.S. President would ever consider flying halfway across the globe to meet with him.
Without it, North Korea would be considered just one more Third World economic basket case, ruled over by a ruthless dictator, which would not be deemed worthy of White House attention. No nuclear weapons, no summitry. Yet as recently as May 4 at a Foreign Affairs Day seminar, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton repeated the hackneyed phrase “CVID.”
Perhaps a Cold War-style containment policy as directed against the former Soviet Union is the only viable answer.
The ultimate objective of American negotiators raises questions
One stated goal of the upcoming summitry is the negotiation of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War – the 1953 Armistice only brought a cessation of overt hostilities and the establishment of a demilitarized zone (DMZ). Yet the question remains as to who would participate in the peace negotiations.
South Korea under President Syngman Rhee refused to become a signatory to the Armistice as Rhee wished to pursue the conflict until the reunification of the peninsula. U.S. General William Harrison, Jr. and North Korean General Nam Il were the Armistice signatories.
It may be legally argued that since General Harrison signed as a representative of all participants in the UN Command, including South Korea, Seoul should have a voice in any peace treaty negotiations.
However, Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather long argued that Seoul should be excluded from any peace treaty process and that Pyongyang should deal directly and exclusively with Washington – with the goal of removing U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong Un has not yet publicly revisited his grandfather and father’s positions on the matter of leaving Seoul out in the cold during peace treaty negotiations. While the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, issued jointly in April by South Korean President Moon and North Korean leader Kim, pledged that “South and North Korea will actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean peninsula” the words “peace treaty” are studiously avoided.
Further agreement “to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States, and China” is nothing new, involving no more than a reconvening of the failed Six-Party Talks minus Japan and Russia.
So, while talk is far preferable to conflict, it is premature to start uncorking the champagne bottles over the upcoming Trump and Kim summit. And it is best to hold off on talk of a Nobel Peace Prize – remember Kim Dae-jung and “pay to play.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Air Force
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