North Korean disarmament: Keep the champagne corked for now

North Korean disarmament: Keep the champagne corked for now
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Wouldn’t it be miraculous if North Korea’s proposal to talk with United States about abandoning its nuclear arms led to genuine disarmament? Yes, it would. But the proposition is likely more mirage than miracle.

The reclusive communist state has recently told envoys from its archenemy South Korea that it is willing to take up negotiations with the United States over the North’s nuclear weapons. In the meantime, it will suspend tests of its nuclear devices and long-range missiles.


Then in an astounding surprise move, Kim Jong Un, the Pyongyang leader, invited President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE to meet for talks over the North’s nuclear program. The invitation, carried to the White House by South Korea’s officials, has been accepted by President Trump.


These are classic North Korean tactics to appear ready to engage in serious diplomacy. Then, the catch will come with demands for material assistance from the South and the United States to sustain the momentum and Pyongyang’s participation in the “peace process.”

In short, the strategy is for the North first to frighten the Republic of Korea, the region and the United States with war threats and weapons testing. Then, North Korea appears open to peace, disarmament and reconciliation.

But to sustain and consolidate these promises, its adversaries must pony up assistance to the beleaguered nation, plus they must do so with humility. The White House must handle this latest overture with extraordinary care or, like its predecessors, fall into a snare.

That the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea asked for talks is a signal that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions and thundering rhetoric have had some impact on the DPRK’s willingness to sit down with American diplomats. 

Despite loopholes and clandestine aid from other states, the tightening economic vise has hurt the North’s economy. The South Korean government has also played the role of “good cop” to America’s “bad cop” in wooing Pyongyang to negotiate.

The Republic of Korea dispatched envoys to Washington to brief U.S. officials on their meeting with their DPRK counterparts. In reality, they conveyed Kim’s invitation for a meeting with President Trump to the White House.

Relations between the two Koreas have been warming since the DPRK turned last month’s Olympic Games into an early spring charm offensive to the world. The authoritarian regime sent athletes, cheerleaders and even ruler Kim Jong Un’s sister to take part in the ROK-hosted winter games. Altogether, they exuded an Olympian bonhomie that captivated the media.

The question overhanging the DPRK’s sudden announcement to halt nuclear and missile developments remains: Is this offer genuine or "déjà vu all over again?" As with similar “breakthroughs” in Washington’s dealings with the dictatorial regime in the past, time will tell.

In the meantime, Donald Trump’s reaction was everything a seasoned diplomat could ask for. The president responded to the news with reserved optimism, tweeting, “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea.”

He concluded the response with a statement that expressed his willingness to “go hard in either direction” toward disarmament talks or toward doubled-down pressure. This is hardly Churchillian language, but it conveyed uncharacteristic statesmanlike behavior. Being open to talks and yet being reserved about progress is prudent policy.

Even the briefest recounting of the Pyongyang’s disarmament history should convince us to leave the champagne corked for now.    

The DPRK has chased after atomic bombs since the close of the Korean War (1950-1953), which ended with an armistice, not a formal peace treaty. Initial nuclear progress started with technical assistance and a small-scale nuclear reactor from the now defunct Soviet Union, the North’s main pillar during the Cold War.

When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the DPRK accelerated its nuclear and long-range missile programs, getting assistance from Chinese entities. For domestic regime survival, it relied on anti-American propaganda.

The regime also turned more toward the country’s reigning dogma of Juche, or self-reliance, than traditional Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

Together, advances in armaments and warlike rhetorical blasts have greeted American offers to negotiate, bribe, reward or deter North Korea away from pursuing the ultimate weapon, with which to threaten East Asia, the United States and indeed the world.

Over the past three decades since the Soviet Union’s collapse, all American presidents have been fixated on the growing nuclear threat posed by the rogue state across the heavily armed demilitarized zone, which separates it from South Korea.

The Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFeehery: Are you (October) surprised? Why must everything Rosenstein be filled with drama?   Judge denies bid to move lawsuit over Trump national monument rollbacks to Utah MORE presidency entered into the widely heralded 1994 Agreed Framework to cease the DPRK’s steps toward nuclear arms. It provided oil for the generation of electrical power, while the ROK and Japan undertook construction of advanced light-water nuclear reactors (to limit syphoning off of spent nuclear fuel for bombs), which were never completed.

Just like the 2015 arms-control deal with Iran, negotiated by the Obama administration, the Agreed Framework package left missile production unregulated. Throughout the 1990s, Pyongyang worked to extend the range of its rockets.

After the Agreed Framework arrangement disintegrated, the George W. Bush administration tried its hand at curtailing the DPRK’s military nuclearization. It took North Korea off the State Department’s listing of terrorist states and restarted the flow of heavy fuel oil for the generation of electricity.

Secretly, Pyongyang pursued its uranium reprocessing, missile-facilities building and nuclear arms perfection. The incoming Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge denies bid to move lawsuit over Trump national monument rollbacks to Utah Tomi Lahren to former first lady: 'Sit down, Michelle' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins MORE government “extend a hand” to militantly authoritarian countries like North Korea if they were “willing to unclench your fist.”

Its efforts to bring North Korea to the arms-control table, however, failed to prevent the ejection of international arms inspectors and cancellation of the six-party talks (which included the United States, Japan, Russia and China, as well as North and South Korea).

Other measures (too lengthy to cite here) by all U.S. administrations failed to curb the DPRK’s single-minded determination to possess nuclear armaments and intercontinental-range missiles capable of striking all of the United States. Nothing thwarted the DPRK’s nuclearization.

The sheer weight of historical evidence is so overwhelmingly stacked against the possibility of a verifiable agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, which would denuclearize the North, as to daunt Sisyphus himself. Yet, the Trump foreign policy team must roll, Sisyphean-like, the stone up the hill another time.

To do otherwise will tilt domestic and international opinion decidedly against the United States. Allies will be crucial should military action be forced upon Washington against a threatening nuclear North Korea.

Almost assuredly, negotiations will again crash, with nothing to show for genuine disarmament of the Pyongyang menace. Its march toward fearsome nuclear and missile arsenals, capable of massive destruction, is predetermined now.

It is almost impossible to see Pyongyang surrendering these awesome weapons that guarantee a warped international respect that it so malevolently craves.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution where he focuses on American foreign policy, international political affairs and insurgencies and author of "America and the Rogue States."