The buzz heard around the world this week contained various phrases concluding that peace on the Korean Peninsula is imminent. We have seen countless pictures and videos of the two Korean leaders meeting at the DMZ and crossing onto each other’s territory for the first time since the Korean War ceasefire in 1953. However, all of these visuals and talk of peace between the two Koreas should be viewed with extremely cautious optimism at this point. While President Trump has affected change and achieved what no other President has been able to accomplish, there is still a very long way to go to bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula.
In recent months, Trump issued stern warnings through fiery rhetoric and less than glamorous characterizations of Kim Jong-un. This was a calculated strategy to counter Kim’s own rhetoric and verbal threats of nuclear annihilation of his Asian neighbors and the U.S., and Trump’s strategy worked. President Trump was criticized by many for his approach with Kim, because after all, no other President had stood up to and dealt with a North Korean leader this way. But when you are dealing with a tyrant, which Kim Jong-un has proven to be many times over, polite diplomacy is futile. Trump knows this and upped the ante in checking Kim’s rhetoric.
There have been plenty of psychological profiles conducted on the North Korean leader, and as crazy as he seems, he is not suicidal or a martyr. Kim’s objectives remain regime preservation and personal survival. In January when Kim threatened Trump by stating that “my nuclear button is on my desk at all times”, Trump responded by saying, “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
President Trump effectively puffed at Kim’s careless threats and ratcheted it up a notch. Kim can’t help but see in President Trump, a person who does not back down and will take action when necessary. This point, very possibly, was driven home to Kim in the action Trump took against Syria over the past two weeks. Kim is smart enough to understand that he and his regime will not survive a war with the United States, and Kim has already crossed a Trump red line by demonstrating that he now has the capability to strike the U.S. with an ICBM.
Something else happened that provided Kim with a convenient out for halting his nuclear testing. NK’s primary nuclear test facility at Punggye-ri suffered catastrophic seismic damage leading Chinese scientists to declare “that another test at the facility will lead to ‘environmental catastrophe’”. With Kim’s inability to continue testing his weapons in the near term, could his conciliatory actions towards the South and peace on the peninsula be a ruse to extract all the concessions from South Korea and the West that he can and relieve some of the economic sanctions imposed against his country? The damage to the NK nuclear test facility also has ramifications for China as a potential environmental catastrophe. Unquestionably, China has pressured North Korea to halt testing because of this.
There have been 65 years since Korea was one country. While Koreans share the same ethnicity and a historic culture, they live in vastly different countries now to the extent that they have very little to nothing in common culturally, economically, socially and even religiously. They have become two separate peoples that would not even be able to relate to each other after 65 years of separation, if there was an effort towards unification of the peninsula, Communism and Totalitarianism has destroyed all individualism and free will of the North Koreans and it would take years for them to effectively assimilate into a free society. More than likely, if things progress to the point of an actual Korean peace, the primary focus in the near term should be on de-nuclearization, not reunification. They would need to remain as two separate countries, for the near term and beyond, for any peace model to work and be sustainable, and China will have to be a player in any talks.
While both sides have declared that they will work towards denuclearization of the peninsula, how do you actually get Kim to de-nuclearize and how will it be verified? What concessions will Kim demand of the U.S. in his definition of peace and denuclearization, and what is the time frame and verification process that the U.S. will demand? Will the U.S. require an immediate denuclearization of North Korea, or will Kim only agree to a slow, phased process? What do we do about his million man military? The biggest question perhaps is how does Trump and other world leaders negotiate in good faith and cautiously accept overtures from Kim Jong-un who has broken international law and committed known atrocities against his own people.
Kim Jong-un is a man who has purged confidants and family members from his inner-circle and executed them with anti-aircraft guns and chemical weapons. He had his own brother assassinated in a Malaysia airport with a VX nerve agent. How do you trust and enter into negotiations with Kim Jong-un to enact peace and improve the lives of Koreans, both north and south, when he has proven to hold no value towards the lives of his own family members?
What we have seen unfold this week is historic and monumental for North and South Korea. To see these two leaders shake hands, cross over the border and enter peace discussions is already a tremendous foreign policy accomplishment for the Trump administration. Many hurdles must be overcome and questions answered. Kim’s true motivation remains cloudy. While events of the past week could certainly be seen as a step towards peace, it is not yet a turning point. President Trump has rightly measured his enthusiasm towards this new perceived thaw in relations with a tweet earlier in the week that said, “Good things are happening, but only time will tell”.