The recent excitement over the meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea marks an historic event, but what does it mean for the future of the Korean peninsula, Asia or the rest of the world? There can be no doubt that President Trump is responsible for this momentous occurrence, but again to what degree will policy change? The question is, will this be equivalent to Nixon going to China or Chamberlain going to Munich?
If past is prologue, we can expect the Kim regime in the north to use this as a delaying tactic to get sanctions lifted and will soon continue as it has with the development of nuclear weapons. However, there have been some significant changes in the way the world in general and the US specifically are treating Korean diplomacy. The two major potential outcomes from the meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in are denuclearization of the peninsula and a formal end to the Korean war that was halted by armistice in 1953.
Denuclearization is the outcome that is seen as the more important of the two, as there is no shooting war to end, and nukes threaten everyone. We can see the motivation of most of the parties involved to end the North’s nuclear program, that is all but the North. Since the founding of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea under the control of Kim Jong-un's grandfather Kim Il-sung, the two main national desires have been to secure the regime and reunite the peninsula under control of Pyongyang.
Officially coming into existence in 1948 the North invaded the South in 1950. The invasion was almost immediately successful, capturing the capitol of Seoul and driving the Korean military into a pocket in the south. Under US leadership the UN sent an international force to confront the North and pushed them out of the South and deep into the North. It was at this point that China sent a large force to aid North Korea and shifted the balance of power. The fighting ended officially on July 27, 1953 with the border reestablished to the original 1950 lines.
While the ceasefire has officially existed for 65 years the North has never stopped trying to impose its rule and extend its control to the entire Korean Peninsula. Over the years the South has blossomed into an economic power house with a high standard of living and a functioning democratic government. North Korea on the other hand began to show a strong economic growth potential, which even surpassed the south but by the 1980's this was shown to be a house of cards. The North Korean economy first stagnated, then completely collapsed following the end of the Soviet Union which had been supporting the regime.
North Korea's desire to be a major military power is not new, it began in the early 1960's, including a stated desire to possess nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union, while refusing to provide weapons development help, did agree to build a nuclear power plant for peaceful use. The North used this toehold to start processing enriched uranium and began its movement towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons in late 1980's or early 1990's. North Korea engaged with the UN and others intermittently as it continued to move forward in development, each time it promised to end its program it found a reason to renege.
Why then all the excitement this time? In a word or two Donald Trump. In the past each time North Korea got to the point of a break out or at least a next step closer to a weapons system it could count on the west to come to them with a plan or options that would hold off the inevitable. This time however instead of being met with a bribe the North Koreans were met with a threat. As the tweet storm raged it became apparent that the US was not backing down.
Add to this, China, the North’s ally and main customer joining in sanctions against the North. Kim then played his final card, an invitation to the President of the United States to sit down to direct talks. Since no sitting president had ever acknowledged any move by North Korean leaders, fearing this would legitimize a rouge nation, it was likely a bluff to make Kim look the victim that was trying to find a peaceful solution. When Trump called the bluff, there were a lot of startled people in both capitols. Trump then upped the ante by demanding that the talks would be substantial, or he would either not go or leave quickly. Kim then announced the end of missile tests and the intended closure of his nuclear facility.
Kim then, following a visit by CIA director and Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo, agreed to direct talks with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in at the Joint Security Area near Panmunjom. These talks resulted in declarations to denuclearize Korea and to officially end the war. The declarations were just that, declarations of intent with nothing specific.
What therefore are the motivations of the two leaders? From the South it is an easy determination, end the threat from the North and reduce the potential of a US attack on the Norths Nuclear facilities. Any attack on the North would result in a massive retaliation on the South by conventional force that would quickly devastate large areas of the South. The North maintains Hardened Artillery Sites (HARTS) that have thousands of artillery tubes within range of millions of South Koreans including the capitol of Seoul. President Moon knows he must keep tensions down to avoid a catastrophe. Motivations on the other side are harder to discern.
Kim has seen for the better part of his life and during his reign the reluctance of the west to meaningfully engage militarily and this was reinforced by the 2015 Obama declaration of "strategic patience" emphasizing diplomacy over war. As we said in the beginning much has changed in US policy, in this case the understanding that military threat is a part of diplomacy. Kim has seen Trump use the military when diplomacy failed in Syria. He has seen the US finally challenge Chinese expansion in the Pacific and the increase in the US military budget. He has also seen that the US has no reluctance in imposing economic sanctions.
Regardless of his rhetoric, Kim may simply have concluded that he is no position to challenge the US. He must also see the economic shape the country is in and understand there is a point that the people will no longer tolerate starvation. He needs to protect his regime and open the door to economic help. This is not to say Kim has made a permanent turn around.
He also knows that Trump will not be president forever and that the next administration may be more like those of the past. He may simply be biding his time, which fits North Korean past strategies. Trump must therefore insist on transparent and unhindered inspections of all sites. Barring this it would be time for Trump to walk out of the talks.
North Korea is a nuclear armed country and a threat to the peace of the world. This is a potential opportunity to make the world a safer place, for however long. It is imperative that the world, most importantly Congress, supports this effort. What ever comes from these talks it must become a treaty, unlike the Iran deal, and must be approved by Congress so the next President cannot be blackmailed by a North Korean threat of restarting weapons development.
As for officially ending the war, it may be nothing more than acknowledging the fact that the two side are no longer shooting at each other. While there are potential traps to this, it is likely to be an acceptance of facts on the ground. Either way, assuming the declaration is real, it is welcome news.