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Kim’s ‘Nuclear Minimalism’

Nov 13,2018
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Lee Byong-chul
The author is director of Nonproliferation Center at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, served on the foreign and national security policy planning staff of South Korean President Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) and President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) from 1993 to 1999.

No issue since the 1950-53 Korean War has plagued the history of inter-Korean relations more than concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The desire for a nuclear-free North Korea has been at the core of arduous negotiations over the years to resolve this seemingly intractable issue. This year, in a series of showy summits between the leaders of the two Koreas, progress toward peace and denuclearization seemed possible in the beginning.

At the summit meeting in Pyongyang on Sept. 18-20, for example, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un seemed determined to upend almost 70 years of deep-rooted conflict between their two countries, calling once again for a formal end to the Korean War and signing off on landmark military confidence building measures. The commitments made in both the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations help lay the groundwork for a long-term peace regime and perhaps eventual unification.

However, skepticism from conservatives in both Washington and Seoul is not unexpected. Despite two inter-Korean summit declarations and one U.S.-North Korea declaration, there is still no clarity on the timeline or roadmap for North Korea’s denuclearization. Without tangible progress on that front, political commitments with both Seoul and Washington may be difficult to implement and a reversion to an adversarial relationship cannot be excluded. While the two countries seem ready to move toward peace, dissatisfaction at the pace and extent of North Korea’s denuclearization efforts could still derail this process. Many fear that the inter-Korean relationship, much like international politics in general, frequently falls at the intersection of psychology and game theory.

The Pyongyang Declaration, which marked a new phase of Korean peacemaking, seems to have been read very differently by national security experts and pundits. Much like the Japanese story and movie “Rashomon,” in which each character sees the events very differently, inter-Korean relations is often interpreted in accordance with the observer’s ideology. In particular, conservatives complain that the two leaders failed to produce tangible outcomes with regard to the denuclearization of North Korea.

There was expectation that North Korea would provide a declaration of its nuclear facilities to pave the way for an end of war declaration. Instead, Kim Jong-un offered only to dismantle the engine test stand and launch pad at Tongchang-ri and underscored a willingness to take measures, like permanently dismantling the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, if the United States takes reciprocal measures.

Conservatives view the North’s approach toward the denuclearization as salami tactics aimed at what I call nuclear minimalism. In other words, critics of the Moon government believe the Pyongyang Declaration as an untrustworthy index. For instance, an opposition party leader stated, “In fact, there has been no concrete progress on denuclearization but there have been speedy inter-Korean accords regardless of denuclearization.” Serious opponents of the Moon government point to the difficulty of words synchronizing with deeds.

On the contrary, strong proponents of the Moon government argue that, just as Moon already set the three main priorities for the summit, which include improving inter-Korean relations, creating the right atmosphere for U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks and alleviating military tensions along the border, the liberal president made great strides in advancing the inter-Korean agenda. Indeed, the Pyongyang Declaration has significantly reduced North Korean threats to South Korea and the danger of war growing out of a conflict on the peninsula. Some liberal analysts assert that there is no perfect solution to eliminating the troubled nuclear arsenal; it is, they say, a fantasy or myth to believe that the denuclearization can be completely made in a one-shot deal.

It is thus no accident that the two Koreas put the importance of reducing military confrontations into the first clause of the Pyongyang Declaration. According to the statement, the South and the North “agreed to expand the cessation of military hostility in response of confrontation such as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into the substantial removal of war across the entire Korean Peninsula.” Inasmuch as the DMZ on the peninsula was not actually a “demilitarized zone” but a “heavily armed zone,” it seems natural that the mutual agreement to withdraw the border guard posts, stop the hostilities and turn the nominal zone into a truly demilitarized zone should be viewed as “normalizing abnormal practices” between the two Koreas. Furthermore, the two sides agreed to promptly activate the Inter-Korean Joint Military Committee, a core part of the Seoul government’s strategy to reduce tensions from the Pyongyang regime, in order to prevent accidental military clashes.

These measures are not without critics in South Korea, though. Whereas the left-leaning pundits who still share much of the conventional Korean resentment of America quickly consider these military measures as a de-facto declaration ending the Korean War, at least between the two Koreas, right-wing experts fear that the Moon government opened a potential Pandora’s Box which would spawn a wide variety of legal and political problems, helping deepen a military imbalance with the nuclear-armed regime in the North.

Given South Korea’s traditional proximity to America, it’s no surprise that a majority of South Koreans take it for granted that North Korea is cheating. They rightly suspect that North Korea’s nuclear threats will not only hurt their economy but will polarize domestic politics as well. While President Trump seems eager for a deal between Washington and Pyongyang, his administration seems deeply skeptical about the North’s intentions on denuclearization and insists that the end-of-war declaration requires substantive concessions from Kim on denuclearization. This approach runs counter to what the two parties agreed to in the Singapore summit declaration and could hinder inter-Korean reconciliation as well.

People on the street know that the nuclear problem does not lie solely in Moon’s hands. The solution to denuclearization largely depends on how Trump and Kim see each other, despite Moon’s strategic efforts to facilitate serious talks between the two. This dependency on Trump, an impulsive and politically fragile president, is a cause for great concern in South Korea.

The recipe for success in past talks was simple: challenges were overcome because of the leaders’ political will to reach a solution. It is thus safe to assume that the prospects for progress to continue among Moon, Kim and Trump still remain hopeful.