Kim's concessions seem too good to be true; they may be just that

Kim's concessions seem too good to be true; they may be just that
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“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," goes an old Wall Street proverb. It is also apt when mentally processing North Korea’s latest burst of apparent “free” concessions.

Kim Jong Un, the country’s chairman of the Korean Workers Party and the Central Military Commission, has been busy of late, standing down the two weapons systems that have unnerved the United States, South Korea and other countries for decades and walking away from other previously non-negotiable demands.

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In recent days, North Korea’s supreme leader announced that his secretive and isolated nation no longer needed to test long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. What caused this transformation is less certain.

 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE’s policies certainly played a role. But what of China’s part? And what of the inscrutable Chairman Kim’s conversion to prince of peace from despot of darkness?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been in a rapid thaw since before the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea this past February.

Just prior to the start of the winter games, the DPRK agreed to participate in the contests and even march together with South Korean athletes in the opening ceremony.

During the winter games, Pyongyang unveiled a charm offensive toward the Republic of Korea and the United States. After ROK officials visited the North, they flew to Washington carrying an invitation to Donald Trump for a meeting with Chairman Kim.

The president agreed to the meeting. Both sides have been gearing up to what will be the first summit between a sitting American president and ruler of North Korea.

The intervening period has seen a spate of head-spinning capitulations from Pyongyang. In mid-April, it eliminated a major hindrance to negotiations with Washington by dropping the demand that U.S. forces must be withdrawn from South Korea.

Therefore, America’s 28,500 troops will stay put while the DPRK opens discussions pertaining to its denuclearization, the aim of the Trump administration.

Even as American diplomats and analysts struggled to take in and absorb the North’s about-face decision on the garrisoning of U.S. military forces within South Korea, a duty dating from the 1950-1953 Korean War, the dictatorial regime released another bombshell.

Pyongyang startled the pre-North and South’s negotiating atmosphere by declaring that it was no longer going to test its nuclear arms or long-range missiles.

Halting the tests is certainly welcome and even propitious news for the upcoming meetings between first North Korea and the Republic of Korea at the end of this month and then the summit sometime in June with the United States.

Military officers in Japan and South Korea, however, were less than ecstatic because the DPRK said nothing about stopping launches of short- and medium-range rockets.

But the ROK’s liberal president, Moon Jae In, was too caught up in celebrating what seems to be a breakthrough for his long-cherished engagement posture toward the North, to get persnickety over the details of the flight ranges of missiles.

Little wonder that North Korean watchers are puzzled, circumspect and wary about the dramatic turnaround occurring north of the Demilitarized Zone, the armed border stretching between the ROK and the DPRK.

The Cold War, of which the standoff with Pyongyang is a distant but related sub-part, did manifest rare but sudden changes. For example, communist watchers of the early 1960s were also cautious about the ideological and political breakup between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

Some commentators initially argued the split was fake, a means to fool the West into dropping its guard as the two communist giants appeared at daggers drawn. As evidence accumulated about the Sino-Soviet divergence, outsiders came to view it as inevitable.

Three decades afterward, Kremlin watchers looked in disbelieve as the Soviet Union slouched toward decline, demise and breakup.

The birth of democracy movements in Eastern Europe and the emergence of the 15 successor states in the defunct Soviet Union offered proof positive that the Soviet empire had fallen into the historical dustbin. The DPRK’s dramatic gestures strike a similar chord of shock.

What sparked this volt face? Certainly, the Trump’s hardball tactics of counter-threats, including rhetorical bomb throwing and deployment of warships and bombers to Korean waters, changed the cautious dynamics shown by former U.S. administrations.

But there might be deeper reasons that Chairman Kim is reversing the country’s militancy toward the United States and South Korea.

There is some speculation that the DPRK might turn the tables on China, its long-term material benefactor, because of Beijing’s pressure for change in Pyongyang’s domestic and international policies.

Time may tell about the rationale for Pyongyang’s announced step-backs from the brink of war. Or, the DPRK could easily revert to its former belligerency, as in past times.

Therefore, Washington confronts the extraordinary and tricky test of making permanent and verifiable Pyongyang’s apparent concessions. The Trump foreign policy team can agree to a genuine peace treaty to replace the armistice signed at the Korean War’s end.

It can normalize diplomatic relations with a disarmed DPRK. It can reassure the North that United States will not military strike at its bases. It could even provide some minimal financial assistance and mutual trade accords.

But what Trump cannot do is trust verifications of any promised denuclearization agreement to the United Nations or any third party. American inspections must be countrywide with no off-limit zones to intrusive U.S. inspectors.

Anything short of a total stoppage of nuclear-arming and missile-building will consign any deal to the too-good-to-be-true category.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author of "America and the Rogue States."