At President Donald Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Kim may promise complete denuclearization, but Trump should know this goal won’t be achieved without progress toward Korean unification and increased contact between South and North Korea.
As a scholar of comparative politics and East Asian studies, I believe that two recent developments – not just one – demand new U.S. policy. So far, the world’s attention has been on the first development: the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Less attention has been paid to the second one: recent displays of pan-Korean patriotism.
Let me explain why this second development deserves more scrutiny.
Moving toward one Korea
Most South Koreans, remembering past Northern violence, welcomed the April 27, 2018, “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.” Signing it with Kim, President Moon Jae-in articulated the South’s interests – and raised his domestic popularity – while restraining the U.S. from an attack on the North.
Moon did this once before. On August 17, 2017, he announced a U.S. agreement not to take military action against the North without the South’s prior consent. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that policy on the same day.
This lessens the chance of conflict. But it also creates a danger for the U.S. If war erupts, Kim might now prefer to hit Americans at bases in Japan, rather than fellow Koreans.
Conventional weapons still a hazard
While these early moves toward stronger relations between the Koreas are a positive sign, the threat of the North’s conventional artillery against Seoul remains. Protecting Seoul is a key requirement for South Korea’s alliance with the United States.
Seoul has importance even for the North, because it is the traditional capital of the whole peninsula. The Joseon dynasty ruled there for half a millennium. Until 1972, the North Korean constitution held that Seoul rather than Pyongyang was legally the capital of all Korea.
So the South has “Korea’s Berlin.” Additionally, two-thirds of all Koreans live here and the South’s economy is 35 times larger than the North’s. Its air force and navy are stronger. From K-pop to electronics, the South has remarkable “soft power” too, while the North is addicted to the hard stuff. Pyongyang has multiple weapons of mass destruction.
And while the threat of combat exists, any action is unlikely. The costs of war, as distinct from rhetoric, are prohibitive. The South would suffer, as would the North, if the U.S. attacked Kim’s nuclear facilities. He might retaliate by using his artillery against Seoul. National security adviser John Bolton and others in Washington neglect our Korean ally’s interests when they focus solely on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic capacity.
President Moon, like leaders in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, would prefer that Pyongyang implement “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization.
But Kim believes that Korea’s history of division by foreign powers gives him a right not to follow the usual rules.. This is more important to him than keeping promises. The fact is that Pyongyang has sporadically in past years committed to denuclearization. It formally withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty only in 2003. The Kim dynasty, in other words, did not follow through on its commitment to shed nuclear weapons.
Total, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization is likely “a bridge too far” in the current context – Kim will not agree to it. In any case, complete verification depends on seeking violations, which is difficult in a dictatorial police state.
Complete denuclearization will be a matter for the future. Demanding it now will not lead to peace on the peninsula or internationally. It is Korean politics, not just Washington politics, that will affect what happens in both the short and long term. Few guess that Kim will fully surrender his only serious power, no matter what he says.
First, more South-North contacts
Kim cannot restrict the appeal to the North of the South’s lifestyle and prosperity forever. South-North contacts will slowly weaken Kim. His unreliability, the factor that makes him dangerous to the U.S., will be tempered as these contacts with South Korea strengthen. He, together with Moon, has let the genie of patriotism out of the bottle, and I don’t think he’ll be able to put it back.
Others have argued that a united Korea is a bigger threat to the U.S., but as I see it, progress toward Korean reunification would reduce the threat to America. A unified Korea would be safer for the U.S. than Pyongyang now is as an isolated nuclear power.
Northern elites cannot maintain their patriotic pretenses without talking about reunification, even though some there, as in the South, do not want it any time soon. Regime change will eventually come to the North. South Koreans know that more contacts with the North can raise their taxes, even as peace raises their security and reunites divided families.
Trump might willingly be persuaded to accept Kim’s claims about denuclearization, for the sake of advertising the best “deal” he can get. This would likely only slow Pyongyang’s program – not end it anytime soon. Negotiations would take multiple meetings, not just one “summit.” A period of South-North links should follow, according to protocols the Panmunjom Declaration has established.
Trump may sooner or later turn down a “denuclearization-without-sure-verification” deal, but in my opinion it is the best available for the U.S. and our allies.
If a future unified Korea emerges, it will still be surrounded by larger and more powerful China, Japan and Russia. And it could want good relations with the strong-but-more-distant U.S.
Rather than dividing the Koreans’ country, America should encourage them to re-create it.