For Korea, the Hard Part Comes Next

June 27, 2018

President Donald Trump (right) meets with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

The brutal North Korean dictatorship wants one thing above all else, and that is to preserve the Kim family dynasty. Other aspirations include obtaining international legitimacy and reuniting the entire Korean Peninsula under Kim Jong Un’s despotic control. Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons program as the surest way to achieve these goals.

The United States has stood side-by-side with South Korea (the ROK) since 1950. Today, 28,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea, including 8,000 airmen. They regularly train with their hosts in large, realistic exercises. Airmen in Korea pride themselves on being “ready to fight tonight” in order to deter and, if necessary, defeat a North Korean (DPRK) invasion.

Make no mistake: If South Korea and the US ever did resume a full-scale war with North Korea, the North would lose. That would be the end of the Kim family dynasty.

So why is this standoff between the DPRK and democratic, prosperous South Korea (supported by the United States) in danger of crumbling? For two reasons: nuclear weapons and sanctions.

First, the DPRK nuke program is “probably designed with the assessment that nuclear weapons will deter foreign intervention if Pyongyang attempts to reunify the peninsula by force or coercion,” notes a recent Defense Department report. “This idea is repeated in North Korea’s internal propaganda and rhetoric about nuclear weapons enabling ‘final victory over the United States.’?”

Over decades, North Korea has elevated bluster, bluff, and small-scale attacks to an art form, sometimes with deadly consequences. Provocations are carefully planned for propaganda value but to avoid a large-scale military response from the US and South Korea.

If the North believes nuclear weapons allow it to act with impunity (given the DPRK’s long history of aggressive behavior) this nuclear program is, in a word, terrifying.

The nukes led to the second change, the sanctions.

A series of increasingly effective United Nations sanctions and other international actions targeting the DPRK are finally proving effective, with Chinese backing. Those who supported North Korea in the past are increasingly turning their backs on the irrational and dangerous regime.

Despite sophisticated laundering and concealment schemes, North Korea is finding it difficult to sell coal and weapons overseas, denying it the hard currency that pays for the ruling elite’s lifestyle and the nuclear program itself.

As the status quo was beginning to break down, President Donald J. Trump arrived in the White House. North Korea now seeks sanctions relief while inching ever closer to being able to load nuclear weapons onto missiles that could hit the United States.

Nuclear missiles will, in Pyongyang’s assessment, give it cover for what comes next. “Reunification with the ROK, by force if necessary, is a key component of North Korea’s national identity, validating its policies and strategies, and justifying the sacrifices demanded of the populace,” the DOD report explains.

It is not mere bluster. The DPRK periodically kidnaps and imprisons foreigners, sinks other nation’s ships, launches artillery attacks against the South, and attacks soldiers in the demilitarized zone. Its own citizens are essentially prisoners in varying levels of pain.

The stalemate of 1953-2018 won’t hold forever. Kim Jong Un will either field the weapons he desires—emboldening a move on South Korea—or sanctions will cripple his ambitions, putting his rule at risk and opening a whole new can of worms.

Trump recognized an opportunity in calling for June’s Singapore summit. At press time, specifics are thin, but an agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in exchange for eventual sanctions relief is a positive first step.

Also good is a plan to work together to return the remains of Americans killed in the North during the Korean War.

Other agreements are troubling, such as the abrupt decision to halt major US-ROK exercises while the DPRK makes progress toward denuclearization. We await details on what constitutes progress, what training will still take place, and how this will impact South Korea’s security.

Trump is surely aware that North Korea has twice before promised to end its nuclear program, only to wind up on the verge of having weapons capable of hitting the United States. The North routinely violates international agreements if it believes it can secure an advantage by doing so.

Trump inverted the normal diplomatic process in Singapore by reaching an agreement first, leaving the details to be worked out later. For decades, the North Korean problem has been described as having no good solutions.

Perhaps a radical new approach was necessary.