Wednesday, May 9, 2018


The current rush of events with respect to the future relationship between the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea), the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the United States, stands in remarkable contrast to the decades of  isolation, hostility and open conflict that commenced in June of 1950 with the invasion of the South by the North and which lasted until 1953.

Recent events, started with the secret visit of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State, in early April to North Korea and a meeting with that country’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Pompeo was laying the foundation for an even more dramatic event, a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump sometime in June. The proposed agenda for this meeting is to be the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  Kim’s April meeting with South Korean President Jae-In Moon was equally dramatic, as the two leaders each stepped across the border between each other’s country in a symbol of cooperation that had never been seen before.  Their meeting resulted in a declaration of intent for the negotiation of a peace treaty to replace the Armistice that ended the conflict in 1953 as well as their stated intention to negotiate a “nuclear free Korean peninsula”.

These remarkable and unexpected events thus open the door for both historic success and unfortunately, for striking failure.  Enthusiasm must be couched in caution. It was just a matter of months previously that Kim Jung-un was threatening a nuclear attack by long range missiles on the U.S. territory of Guam and bragging that the continental U.S. was now in range of his ICBMs.
He and Trump had engaged in a tit-for-tat series of name calling and mutual threats. This ironically, was nearer the normal U.S./North Korea relationship of the last 70 years than the possible new one which could bring an opportunity for dramatic change, but it will be difficult to simply walk away from decades of hostility and mistrust. 

Some simple facts describe the difficulties and the historical context that makes it so.

1. North Korea is an extremely bureaucratic, hierarchical Communist dictatorship and has been since it’s creation in 1947 after the Japanese defeat and expulsion in WWII.

2. Kim Jong-un is the product of a ruling dynasty. He became the absolute leader of North Korea by succeeding his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 to 2011.  Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung  (1948-1994) who was the founding leader appointed indirectly by the Soviet Union to rule over a client state which shared the peninsula with the Republic of Korea.

3. During and after the North’s unsuccessful invasion of the South in 1950-1953 and the subsequent stalemate which has survived ever since, Kim Il-sung, his son and now his grandson, have  built a national security state around a Stalin like model of “cult of personality” in which each succeeding leader was practically deified through life long government propaganda and “education” processes imposed on their people.

4. The “national security state” i.e. the creation of a powerful military and an internal security apparatus is thus designed to provide security from internal threats to the leadership  and to serve as part of the politically designed and deeply embedded  “external threat” scenario used to rationalize the extreme economic hardship, the absence of civil liberties and the complete control of the daily lives of the general population. 

What this means for the difficult task of negotiations that lie ahead is that to reduce or eliminate an important part of N. Korea’s military capabilities implies a reduced external threat to the nation, which in turn implies the need for less sacrifice on the part of the people and less need for a demi-god like leader. It thus could be perceived by Kim Jong-un as reducing his personal security and enhancing real or imagined threats to his regime from internal sources. This is important to Kim who has already brutally eliminated senior military leaders and family members who could have been potential rivals for power.

None of this implies that Kim’s pursuit and accomplishment of a viable nuclear weapons capability was just for internal propaganda use, although that was an important component.  Becoming a nuclear power enhances a leader’s and a nation’s prestige and importance on the regional and world stages. Now, how do you tell your nation that after sacrificing and then reaching this stage of importance, that you are suddenly going to give it up? And after teaching generations of citizens with a religious like certainty, that the U.S. and South Korea are evil aggressors intent on destroying their nation, how do you explain that the threat no longer exists?

The U.S. under several presidents and the international community have been down this road before with Kim’s father Kim Jung-il and grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The current Kim is undoubtedly familiar with the negotiation tactics and the outcomes they produced.

Kim Il-sung: 1948-1994

Discussions, negotiations, bargaining and inconsistent behavior by the Kim dynasty with regard to nuclear weapons development has been on-going since December,1985 when N. Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970), which basically states that non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) will agree to not pursue development of nuclear military capability and existing nuclear weapons states (NWS) will agree to help NNWS develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes i.e. power generation, medical technology. All members of the Treaty also agree not to transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to other nations.  The Treaty also requires that the existing nuclear weapons states (NWS) agree to pursue the abandonment of nuclear weapons.

However, N. Korea refused to fully comply with the treaty’s requirements for completing a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which requires disclosure of existing nuclear research facilities and IAEA inspections.  It was not until 1991 that N. Korea agreed to the Safeguards provisions, which they signed in January, 1992 in return for the North and South signing a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  This was just after U.S. President George Bush unilaterally announced the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from South Korea.

In 1993, the IAEA believing that N. Korea had been cheating on its obligations under the NPT demanded inspections on two sites. N. Korea denied access to these sites and in March, 1993 announced that it was withdrawing from the NPT.

Although later in 1993 N. Korea said it was suspending its decision to withdraw from the NPT, after another incident of refusal to allow inspections at it Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing plant, N. Korea withdrew from its participation in the IAEA regime in June, 1994.  By then U.S. intelligence estimated that N. Korea may have already produced one or two nuclear weapons.
Clearly, the whole on and off again NPT compliance had been a charade.

Kim Jong-il: 1994-2011

In October, 1994 N. Korea, now under the rule of Kim Jong-il, who succeeded his father after the older Kim died the previous July, signed the  Agreed Framework, in which N. Korea agreed to dismantling, “freezing” and elimination of various nuclear facilities in return for the construction of two “light water reactors” which have no military utility, and annual shipments of heavy fuel oil.

In late 1994, U.S. attention turned to N. Korea’s missile development and foreign sales which had been the object of economic sanctions by the U.S.  N. Korea agreed to talk about its missile development but demanded that the economic sanctions be removed first.

In May,1996, the U.S. imposed more economic sanctions on N. Korea and Iran for missile technology transfers. Despite these sanctions, N. Korea in 1998, was again the object of economic sanctions along with Pakistan, over transfer issues.

Between 1998 and 2000 talks between the U.S. and N. Korea went on but N. Korea was not deterred in its missile development program and stalled the talks with its insistence that all economic sanctions be removed prior to any substantive limits on its missile program and in July, 2000, N. Korea demanded $1billion per year in return for halting missile exports.

In late 2002 N. Korea admitted that it had a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, a clear violation of the NPT and Agreed Framework. In December, 2002, N. Korea told the IAEA that it was restarting one of its nuclear reactors and reopening the other nuclear facilities closed under the Agreed Framework . It then ordered IAEA inspectors to leave the country.  In January, 2003, North Korea announced that it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty again.

In April, 2003 N. Korea made the claim that it now possessed nuclear weapons. In August, 2003 N. Korean officials at Six Party talks in China, offered a proposed “solution”.
This would require the United States to conclude a ‘non-aggression treaty”, normalize bilateral
diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, complete the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, resume suspended fuel oil shipments, and increase food aid. They also threatened to test their nuclear weapons or “demonstrate the means they have to deliver them.”  

In July, 2006 N. Korea test fired seven ballistic missiles. The U.S. condemned the tests as a “provocative act” and the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning N. Korea also.  Japan and S. Korea imposed sanctions on food and fertilizer aid. N. Korea rejected the resolution.

In Oct. 2006, N. Korea conducted an underground nuclear test explosion and blamed the U.S. for its “nuclear threat”, “sanctions” and pressure”, but said that N. Korea still remained willing to “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula.

On April 5, 2009. NK launched a three stage ballistic missile claiming it was a satellite launch but all three stages including the pay load fell into the sea making it obvious that it was an ICBB test. The UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the launch and called for strengthening punitive measures under a previous Resolution.  North Korea then withdrew from the Six Party talks and said it would no longer be bound by any of its previous agreements.

In May, 2009 N. Korea conducted another nuclear explosion test.

On March 26, 2010, North Korea, in an unexplained provocation, torpedoed a South Korean navy patrol ship.  On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired artillery rounds at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.
Thus the reign of Kim Il-sung was a continuation of provocation, threats, demands for aid and removal of economic sanctions in return for moderating its behavior which lacked substance.

Kim Jong-Un:  201l-present

The seven years of the third Kim dictatorship have been the most adversarial, dangerous and duplicitous of the sixty-five years since the Armistice ended the Korean conflict in 1953.
This relatively short period has been characterized by open militarization in the form of missile and nuclear weapons development in violation of treaties.  The U.S. and international response has been “talks”, “negotiations” and on and off again economic sanctions. Unpersuaded and undeterred, Kim Jung-Un has brazenly pursued his goal of producing medium and long range delivery systems for nuclear warheads while offering the empty promises of his predecessors as a delaying strategy to accomplish his military development goals.

In February, 2012, shortly after assuming power, Kim agreed to suspend operations at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant. President Obama responded by providing 240,000 metric tons of food aid.

In April, 2012 North Korea carried out a significant missile launch test in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1871 and 2006.  Obama suspended the food aid program.

In December, 2012, North Korea conducted another test of a long range missile, putting a satellite into orbit. This was followed in February, 2013 with the underground detonation of a nuclear device.

The following August, 2013, Kim restarted the Yongbyon nuclear enrichment plant.
Between March 21st and December 15, 2014 North Korea conducted numerous short and medium range missile tests, initiated an artillery duel with South Korea near the maritime border between the two countries and conducted a missile launch test from a submarine which failed but which was followed by another such test that was successful.

On January 6, 2016, North Korea announced its fourth nuclear explosion which Kim claimed was a hydrogen bomb. In September, 2016 North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test detonation and in August, 2017 announced a “test plan” for a nuclear missile attack on the U.S. territory of Guam, inspiring newly elected U.S. President Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” if such an attack occurred.

On September 6, 2017, North Korea detonated its sixth nuclear device which international authorities estimated at 100 kiloton yield, over six times the size of the WWII Hiroshima blast.

Kim Jong-un started off 2018 with New Year’s announcement that North Korea would “mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

Just two months later, on March 6, 2018, South Korean officials reported that North Korea was willing to begin negotiations with the U.S. on denuclearization issues if its “security is guaranteed as part of a five point agreement reached by Kim and two South Korean officials at an earlier meeting in North Korea .  He also agreed to the “North/South Summit” which was held in April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

It is highly doubtful that President Trump is familiar with even with this brief history of the struggle to bring peace and stability to the Korean peninsula. Hopefully, he will bring in experts to brief him in detail before he tries to “make a deal” with Kim Jung-Un who was raised as a “dictator to be” with the elevated ego and ruthlessness that goes with such indoctrination.

The relevant facts revealed by the actions of all three generations of Kims are these.
Denuclearization or significant cut backs in nuclear research and development has been offered by all three as negotiating tactics and then withdrawn.

Trump should also take note of the fact that of North Korea’s six nuclear test explosions , four have been conducted by the current Kim Jung-Un government, as well virtually all of the advancements in intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Does this mean that a genuine process of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula is just a political mirage?  Not entirely, as improbable as that is.  The X factor might well  be the Chinese.   Prior to his meeting with South Korean President Moon, Kim Jung-un embarked on a semi-secret train trip to China for important talks. China has made it abundantly clear in the past that it does not want another conflict, conventional and especially nuclear on its border which means that it opposes a nuclear armed North Korea.  China could have reached a tipping point which resulted in the threat of severe economic consequences in addition to the many sanctions already in place, if 
Kim Jung-un persists in his provocative and reckless nuclear policies.  

Nothing binding will be actually accomplished at the Trump/Kim meeting in June even if verbal understandings are made,  but it is a vital first step between two unpredictable and aggressive political leaders neither of whom are practiced in the norms of diplomatic discourse. They have with a long way to go and Trump must be patient and fundamentally wary of the generational tactics of deceit that he is likely to face.