I must confess that I’m completely puzzled — even mystified — by the wild optimism surrounding the imminent summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. There’s talk of a Nobel Peace Prize. The word “denuclearization” hangs in the air. It’s finally happening, some people seem to believe. The combination of Trump’s bad cop and South Korea’s good cop has brought the North to the table, for real this time.
Pause for one second and look at the events of the last several months from the North Korean perspective — especially from the perspective of a people steeped in the belief of their own cultural and racial superiority. And when you do, you’ll understand that nuclear weapons aren’t just central to their nation’s military strategy, they’re a key part of the North Korean national identity.
Why has Kim enjoyed a personal audience with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, one that appeared to solidify the Chinese–North Korean relationship and announce to the world that China was still a major player on the Korean peninsula? Why were the eyes of the world transfixed on the DMZ when Kim crossed into the South, amid extreme pomp and circumstance and with live television coverage across the globe? Why will the attention ratchet up orders of magnitude when Trump meets with Kim, to the point where the summit will be the talk of the entire world?
There’s a one-sentence answer: Because North Korea is now a nuclear power that has successfully tested long-range ballistic missiles. That places it in a very exclusive club.
But the North’s weapons program does more than enhance its military power. The North Korean nuclear program helps validate juche, the North Korean doctrine of radical self-reliance and radical cultural superiority. The North Korean nuclear program helps validate the Kim regime itself, demonstrating its awesome power and its ability to intimidate even the mighty (and hated) United States of America.
To understand the importance of juche, the cult of the Kim family, and the centrality of the missile program to North Korean identity, I’d encourage you to read Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim, a writer who went undercover as a Christian missionary (we’ll table the ethics of that for a moment) to teach the children of the North Korean elite. The title of the book is based on a song the kids sang each day. The “you” is the North Korean leader. The “us” isn’t just the nation, it’s the very soul of the people.
Ms. Kim describes the cult of devotion to the regime and the cult of the missile program. Images of missiles were everywhere, and this was years before the current round of tests.
What is North Korea without its missile program? It’s a ninth-rate nation with a decaying conventional arsenal and zero meaningful leverage over any nation besides South Korea.
And now those missiles have validated North Korean power. Now those missiles — married with nuclear warheads — have put it front and center on the world stage. So now it’s going to disarm?
What is North Korea without its missile program? It’s a ninth-rate nation with a decaying conventional arsenal and zero meaningful leverage over any nation besides South Korea. North Korea without its nuclear weapons is a mere blip on the American radar screen, a minor legacy irritant left over from a long-ended Cold War. Denuclearization? It’s not happening.
The North has long exploited partisan wishful thinking to engineer extraordinarily favorable “deals” from a series of American and South Korean presidents. Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Eberstadt offers a brief history lesson:
In 1992, there were the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. At the historic 2000 summit, there was the South–North Joint Declaration, after which President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea famously declared: “There is no longer going to be any war. The North will no longer attempt unification by force, and at the same time we will not do any harm to the North.”
And in October 2007, there was the so-called “peace declaration” in the eight-point agreement signed by Kim Jong-il and President Roh Moo-hyun. “The South and the North both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime,” it read.
There have been nuclear deals with North Korea. There have been talks about regulating the North’s missile programs. And after all that talk — after all those agreements — North Korea is a nuclear-missile-armed state.
But, but, “Trump,” you say. His saber-rattling makes new things possible, right? His unpredictability has knocked the Kim regime back on its heels, right?
It’s important to understand why Trump’s belligerent tweets haven’t fundamentally changed the dynamic. There is a profound difference between bluster and true saber-rattling. Bluster is words. Saber-rattling is deployments. Saber-rattling is a cocked pistol pointed at your enemy’s head. And the North knows full well that there hasn’t been a substantial change in the disposition of allied forces.
The South is not a nation readying for imminent war. The United States is not mobilizing the forces needed to protect the South and reclaim the North in the event real shooting starts. Indeed, the current regime in the South is deliberately trying to defuse tensions, not ratchet up the military pressure.
Finally, let’s remember recent history — a history the North Koreans know all too well. If you don’t have nukes, you’re extraordinarily vulnerable to American, allied, or even internal military aggression. Just ask Saddam Hussein. Just ask Moammar Qaddafi.
But if you have nukes, you can enjoy their immense deterrent value while dangling their destruction in front of an American president, appealing to his vanity, exploiting partisan wishful thinking, and extracting concessions in exchange for “statements” or “frameworks.” But above all, you cannot — you must not — give up the very weapons that not only brought an American president to the table but helped validate an entire cultural idea.
Eberstadt calls the sad history of agreements with the North “P. T. Barnum–style, a-sucker-born-every-minute diplomacy.” I’d amend the statement slightly. The sucker isn’t born every minute. He’s elected every four years.