Don’t Fall for Kim Jong-un’s Pleas for Peace
This week, North Korean propaganda outlets ramped up demands to the South Korean government to swiftly end the Korean War to uphold Seoul’s Panmunjom Declaration obligations. Yet, North Korea’s implausible denials of a recently discovered covert uranium enrichment facility near Pyongyang and its ongoing ship-to-ship transfers to evade oil sanctions reinforce serious doubts that Kim Jong Un has any intent to uphold Pyongyang’s Panmunjom Declaration obligations, let alone denuclearize.
Nonetheless, North Korea wants everyone to believe it will finally relinquish its nuclear weapons if South Korea and the U.S. would be reasonable about sequencing. Similar to its recent message to Seoul, Pyongyang declared this month that Washington must first earn North Korea’s trust by formally ending the Korean War; only then will North Korea denuclearize. However, this alleged olive branch is just another one of Pyongyang’s traps designed to dilute international pressure and simultaneously pocket American concessions while delaying any of its own indefinitely.
North Korea embedded this proposal in an official foreign ministry statement that made headlines in the U.S. by attacking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “unilateral and gangster-like demands” for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID). The proposed alternative to Pompeo’s approach was “the declaration of the end of the war at an early date,” constituting the “first factor in creating trust between the DPRK and the U.S.”
While Americans may not have taken the hint from Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae In optimistically suggested the North Korean statement demonstrated a new attitude toward negotiations. What Moon did not see or chose not to see is that North Korea’s definition of peace entails the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Even though Trump surprised the Pentagon by suspending joint military exercises with South Korea after his summit with Kim Jong Un, this was not enough to quell Pyongyang’s insecurities and increase bilateral trust. Rather, the foreign ministry statement complained that the suspension is easily reversible since it allows U.S. forces in South Korea to remain “intact in its previously held positions without scraping even a rifle.” This statement strongly suggests that North Korea’s envisioned peace regime involves the full withdrawal of American troops, effectively breaking the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Furthermore, an American withdrawal prior to North Korean disarmament would leave Pyongyang in an ideal position to extort concessions from Seoul via ongoing intimidation.
Avoiding this kind of imbalance may seem like common sense, yet signing a formal peace treaty may result in precisely the sort of complacency that ignores such dangers. Thus, at the press conference following his summit with Kim, President Trump not only canceled joint military exercises with South Korea but also stated he wants to withdraw troops at some point. Although President Trump reiterated that he still prioritizes North Korea’s denuclearization, the turn of events in Singapore suggests how easily the prospect of peace can delude world leaders into offering premature concessions despite a lack of progress on denuclearization. Moreover, while Pyongyang did not openly demand sanctions relief in its latest message to the U.S., North Korea may simply anticipate the U.S. and the international community will lift sanctions voluntarily in exchange for “peace.”
In previous rounds of negotiation, Washington made several good-faith gestures to build trust and provide security assurances to North Korea. In 1991, the United States withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. In a 2005 statement, Washington pledged that it has “no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.” Yet, the United States received no concessions in return. To avoid falling for North Korea’s false promises, Washington should refuse to sign a peace agreement in the absence of CVID, since there can be no true peace on the Korean peninsula for as long as North Korea has nuclear weapons.
Despite Pyongyang’s virulent opposition to CVID, the U.S. could offer creative dialogue mechanisms to meet North Korea’s reasonable demands halfway. For example, Cho Yoon Je, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, recommended that the U.S. could simultaneously pursue denuclearization and trust building. Ambassador Cho’s vision could essentially come in the form of two parallel negotiating tracks: one for denuclearization, while the other focuses on laying the groundwork for a peace treaty, which could be signed as soon as disarmament is completed.
As part of this process, Washington must ensure that CVID is a non-negotiable precondition for a Korean War peace treaty. For example, Washington should make clear that it will withdraw from peace negotiations if Pyongyang fails to provide a full declaration of its nuclear capabilities and allows full inspections of its nuclear facilities.
A North Korean refusal to cooperate with this approach would confirm that Pyongyang is not serious about both denuclearization and achieving peace in Korea. In that case, the Trump administration would have only one sensible option: return to the maximum pressure campaign to impose the crippling costs that would compel Kim to finally denuclearize and pursue a genuine peace process.
Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.