President Trump should be given credit for his ambitious goal for North Korea, whether or not the goal is achieved. Sadly, I expect the administration to fall short of the finish line.
Conventional wisdom has it that Kim Jong-un’s objective is the survival of his regime. That’s not so. Since the post–World War II creation of the Democratic Republic of Korea, the Kim family regime has sought one objective: conquest of South Korea by any means to unify the peninsula under the tyrannical, inhumane rule of the Kim family. This has been the business goal of the Kim family, of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and, now, Kim Jong-un. It is the primary reason that peace has eluded the Korean Peninsula for 70 years.
Much is made of the fact that the Singapore agreement between the U.S. and North Korea states that North Korea “commits to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Does this sound familiar? It should.
North Korea began efforts to make nuclear weapons not later than 1986, the year it started to operate a nuclear reactor whose output included weapons-grade plutonium. Its commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was first made on January 20, 1992, in the Joint Declaration it signed with South Korea. As history has shown, whatever North Korea meant by “denuclearization” in 1992 didn’t prevent it from successfully developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
Rather than analyzing what the North now means by “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” we should identify why the Kim family regime developed nuclear weapons in the first place and advanced its ability to manufacture and deliver them in the ensuing years. North Korea developed nuclear weapons because it saw them as essential to the goal of the Kim family business, which is conquest and reunification with South Korea. As the adage says, “actions speak louder than words.” North Korea’s actions demonstrate that the Kim family business has made no change to that goal.
North Korea still maintains a military force of more than a million. It still maintains huge secret tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone that would enable its military to rapidly invade South Korea. It still maintains a cache of chemical weapons. The North also maintains prodigious artillery in the hills and mountains facing south, thereby enabling it to threaten much of the outskirts of Seoul and much of Seoul itself with death and destruction. There isn’t the slightest evidence that the Kims’ business goal, conquest of the South by any means, has been modified. In pursuit of that goal, nuclear weapons are as useful today as they have been in the past.
The word “denuclearization” was useful to Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father, and it could be to him. The first two generations of Kims were successful in using promises not to develop nuclear weapons and not to manufacture fissile material as bargaining chips that allowed them to obtain much-needed economic benefits, cash, oil, and reduced sanctions. The fact that North Korean promises were never fulfilled did not keep other countries from accepting yet more promises and delivering yet more tangible benefits in exchange. From the side of the U.S. and South Korea, hope always triumphed over experience. It would be no surprise if Kim Jong-un believes that this will happen once more.
At the Singapore summit, President Trump said and did things suggesting that Kim change the objective of his family business. The president appears to have been trying to sell Kim on the idea that massive economic development of the North is a business objective that can replace the long-held goal of conquering the South, and that this transformation could bring glory to the North Korean leader who accomplishes it. His flattering statements sought to appeal to Kim’s vanity. He showed Kim a video portraying the dramatic economic improvements that would result from Kim’s prioritizing the new goal of economic development and abandoning the goal of conquest.
Trump’s approach is not likely to succeed. Nonetheless, the longtime U.S. aim of completely denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is important to pursue, and we should applaud the president’s imaginative approach and hope it succeeds —that North Korean actions will follow. However, we forget at our peril that the U.S. and our allies South Korea and Japan still are threatened by the Kim family business’s unchanged goal.
So long as this is the case, so long as North Korean actions fail to demonstrate change, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan must continue to prepare themselves to counter North Korea’s military, artillery, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Preparedness must be maintained even while we hope that Kim’s words of peace are better fulfilled than were his father’s and grandfather’s. In the present circumstances, Trump should not issue orders weakening the ability of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan to counter the continuing North Korean threat, including military exercises with the purpose and effect of maintaining that ability.