Tonight’s announcement by the South Korean national security adviser that President Trump and Kim Jung Un will meet sometime before May is already being widely hailed as a major step forward in defusing the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It could end up being exactly that, make no mistake. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. We’ve been down this road once before in 1994. The US was coming perilously close to launching a military operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program while it was still in the embryonic stage. Pyongyang was feeling the heat, sanctions were impacting North Korea as it dealt with a major famine. Kim Jong Il, who had just taken over the duties of premier following the death of his father Kim Il Sung, indicated he wanted to open the door to negotiations with the United States.
Negotiations were held and brought about the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang gave up its ambitions for a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons grade material in exchange for US assurances it would not attack, as well as light water reactors that were resistant to nuclear proliferation uses. The agreement was troubled from the beginning, and as soon as US attention was diverted to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, the North Koreans bailed on the agreement entirely. A few short years later Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.
Kim Jong Un is trying something similar now. Pressure is building and the regime is starting to feel the pinch from sanctions. The odds are not in favor of Trump and Kim meeting face to face, let alone in favor of them reaching an agreement that ends the crisis once and for all. In all probability the North Koreans will conjure up a superficial excuse to use as justification for canceling the talks at the last minute. And in all likelihood they will lay the blame square on the United States.
In short, don’t be fooled by Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive, or apparent sincerity. He’s buying time, nothing more. The White House knows this is probably true, as does the Pentagon. Contrary to the beliefs of many people tonight, the US-North Korean standoff might be entering its most dangerous phase, instead of reaching a point where tensions begin to diminish for real.
North Korea has laid out an offer it hopes cannot be refused by Seoul and Washington. During two days of talks in Pyongyang with envoys from South Korea, the North said it was willing to begin negotiations with the United States aimed at denuclearization, and would impose a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests during those talks. In a statement released by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it was said that North Korea made it clear that it would have no reason to keep its nuclear weapons if the military threat to the country was eliminated and its security guaranteed. It is obvious that the North regards the United States as the primary military threat to its security, and survival.
Pyongyang also claims to want to make progress on the unification front, though on this subject their sincerity is even more questionable. Unification in the North is defined as reuniting the Korean peninsula under the rule of Kim’s regime. It means something quite different south of the DMZ, naturally. Both nations are moving forward with talks aimed at a late-April summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon. It would be the first Inter-Korean summit meeting in eleven years. On the subject of the annual US-South Korean military exercises to be held in April, Kim Jong Un claimed to understand why they needed to be held, though if the situation between the two Koreas stabilizes, he expects the size of the exercises to be adjusted.
The South Koreans were caught off guard by the flexibility of the North’s positions, Kim’s willingness to negotiate, and even give up his nuclear weapons under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, Seoul appears to be delighted with what the talks in Pyongyang have produced, both in substance and potential. Washington’s reaction will presumably be more guarded and pessimistic. North Korea’s newfound candor is out of character. Until concrete proof is presented to the White House, the Trump administration will remain hopeful, but regard Pyongyang’s words and promises as nothing more than Kim Jong Un selling a bill of goods.
The annual joint US-Republic of Korea military exercises antagonize North Korea to no end. For as long as they’ve been held, the exercises have been a thorn in North’s side. Every year, events follow a similar pattern. In the weeks leading up to the start of the exercises, Pyongyang voices complaints. Gradually, the complaints become threats, and eventually stern warnings to the US and South Korea. The North Koreans have long held the position that the exercises serve as a mask for invasion preparations, despite the fact that there has not been a military incursion into its territory since the Korean War.
Given the current state of tensions on the Korean peninsula, it comes as no surprise that North Korea is rattling its saber mightily as the exercises prepare to begin tomorrow. The official state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun warns that the US-ROK exercises will ‘worsen the state’ of the region, and lead to an ‘uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.’ Pyongyang also warned that it has Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland in the crosshairs of its nuclear weapons and promised the US would be unable to dodge a ‘merciless strike.’
The US is closely watching North Korea for signs that a missile test could be in the works. In the past, these joint exercises have provoked responses from Pyongyang such as missile firings. In the current environment this would be the worst possible move Kim Jong Un could make. Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Following Kim’s threats against Guam, even a single ballistic missile test runs the risk of enflaming a situation that is already a potential powder keg.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump have spoken frequently in recent weeks regarding the crisis. Moon was recently quoted as saying his nation’s North Korea policy is in line with America’s own. There has been some speculation about whether or not Trump would seek Moon’s blessing prior to possible US military action against North Korea. The answer depends on a number of political and operational variables. In short, it would be beneficial and wise for Trump to have the support of the South Korean and Japanese leaders, but it is not a necessity should the time come when the US has to take action against the North.