So many drastic changes have occurred since Scribe’s previous article on North Korea, “North Korean Nuclear Threat”, which was published on May 10th, 2018. At the time, talks and preparations for the first Inter-Korean summit in 11 years were taking place. Two more summits between the two Koreas occurred after the initial meeting at Panmunjeom in late April. Moreover, American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore on 12th June 2018, which was the first-ever meeting between an American president and a North Korean leader. There were a few troubles as President Trump unilaterally decided to cancel the summit, but eventually, the two leaders sat down and signed a joint statement. Kim also traveled to China, which was his first official state visit after assuming power in 2011. Nowadays, there is debate on whether Kim will honor his promise to visit Seoul in due course and even pay a state visit to the United States to meet President Trump. These series of events would have been near impossible to predict five months ago.
The previous article from April stated that it was not the right time for champagne, and that we should remain vigilant towards North Korea’s nuclear development even as we welcome the détente. With Kim giving out valuable pine mushrooms as gifts and climbing Mt. Paektu with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, is now the right time to open champagne bottles and pat ourselves on the back? Maybe this is still not the occasion. Of course, the fact that Moon and Kim met several times and are planning to do so more in the near future should be celebrated. This change of atmosphere shows that the two Koreas are willing to engage in dialogue and meetings instead of retaliatory gunshots and inflammatory rhetoric. Furthermore, the fact that North Korea announced several joint statements on possible denuclearization and dismantlement of related facilities should be welcomed.
Despite all these improvements, the polished words on the signed joint statements do not guarantee North Korea’s denuclearization. Though the statements may develop into concrete agreements and treaties, as things stand for now, they are nothing more than a set of ideals that the signed nations purportedly wish to achieve. In fact, it should be kept in mind that Kim’s idea of “complete denuclearization” may differ depending on what America is willing to offer in exchange. Kim’s goal is to lift sanctions targeting North Korea and to sign a peace treaty which includes non-aggression and regime security guarantees. However, it is highly unlikely that the United States will be willing to give such costly rewards to North Korea, for the DPRK can become a precedent suggesting that any country could strike a non-aggression deal with the United States once it succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. This could lead to nuclear proliferation starting in East Asia, since even nations maintaining an alliance or partnership with the United States would be tempted to build up their own nuclear arsenal. Former U.S. State Secretary Henry Kissinger said, “It cannot be that North Korea is the only Korean country in the world that has nuclear weapons, without the South Koreans trying to match it. Nor can it be that Japan will sit there, so therefore we’re talking about nuclear proliferation.” Since providing nuclear deterrence across the world empowers American influence across the globe, this trend will decrease America’s sphere of diplomatic influence – an undesirable consequence for Washington.
However, America’s hesitation may make Kim’s will to denuclearize waver or even increase Kim’s incentive to cheat. The United States is between a rock and a hard place – it must choose either denuclearizing the current national threat or maintaining the current non-proliferation regime. Such contemplations stem from another worrisome factor in dealing with North Korea, namely North Korea’s unreliability. North Korea is notorious for abandoning international agreements and multilateral talks. Even if North Korea signs an agreement on denuclearization, it can change its position and reverse its denuclearization course when it wants to. Of course, the United States and South Korea cannot avoid the blame of letting previous agreements to collapse. However, every previous agreement on North Korean denuclearization before 2018 had collapsed, including the 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and DPRK. North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear reactors in Yongbyon and allow IAEA inspectors to inspect its nuclear facilities in exchange for oil and two light water reactors built by the US, South Korea, and Japan. However, the agreement collapsed after North Korea was discovered producing HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) in 2002. North Korea withdrew from the Non-proliferation Treaty in 2003, restarted its previously frozen nuclear reactors and disrupted IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguard inspections. Eventually, IAEA had to withdraw its inspectors during the final days of 2002 and witness DPRK leaving the NPT. Nuclear disarmament takes a long time, for it includes dismantling the nuclear weapons and deactivating or demolishing nuclear facilities and delivery methods. It is never too late for the North Korean leadership to pose a nuclear threat once again, even after the denuclearization process is underway.
Now is not the time to lose ourselves in the heat of the moment. Some Korean people and press agencies are getting ahead of themselves about the recent détente. A September 24th poll by KBS revealed that 55% of Korean people believed that the denuclearization of North Korea would happen. However, denuclearization is a long, grueling process that requires time, effort, and mutual trust. As for the current developments, they are nothing more than placing the cornerstones of a building. Moreover, nobody can ascertain to what degree North Korea will denuclearize. For now, the building can be anything from a skyscraper to a pavilion. To build a complete, beautiful and sturdy building, all related parties should continue doing their tasks with perseverance and belief. Let’s not count the chickens before they hatch.