There has been much discussion in the media about the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Much of the commentary in the US has focused on Trump (pro or anti), who was the winner (benefitted the most), whether it was proper for Trump to sit down with a brutal dictator, and his subsequent praise for Kim.
Other commentaries centred on whether the summit advanced the objective of denuclearisation and if Russia was behind Trump’s concession to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, which the North had deemed provocative. Other commentaries also touched on China’s role and the fact that the summit ignored human rights concerns.
I do not want to add to this except to say that denuclearisation was never a realistic option. It can only be achieved if the security of Kim’s regime can be guaranteed, and no external force can do that completely.
Most commentators seem to miss the central point that arms, including nuclear weapons, are symptomatic of insecurity and conflict. Insisting on denuclearisation without addressing Kim’s concerns about insecurity is a non-starter. Two groups seem hooked on the idea of denuclearisation. One comprises Cold War arms controllers who still appear to wield considerable influence in Washington think-tank circles. They seem to be hooked on the status quo and are against any spread of nuclear weapons.
The second is the Trump administration. Unable to formulate its own policy objective, it became even more strongly committed than previous administrations to the goal of nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula. It is unclear why Pyongyang would want to give up its nuclear weapon capability, which it developed at great cost.
Nuclear weapons are why the world is concerned about the impoverished totalitarian state and why the US is talking to Kim. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect Kim to give up that crucial capability, except, possibly, if the security of his regime can be assured. However, no external force can allay the Kim regime’s internal security concerns, which are likely to grow in the wake of the summit. The threats come from internal and international sources. Although international threats have dominated thus far, domestic disputes can be expected to become more pronounced over time. External actors may assure Kim of international security but have little or no control over likely internal threats.
I must confess here that I am unclear how possession of nuclear weapons can guarantee the internal security of the Kim regime. Thus far, maybe it has enhanced the domestic legitimacy of the regime in the context of international threats. One can argue that the summit further added to Kim’s legitimacy and international recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. However, easing international threats and sanctions will intensify domestic sources of insecurity for the Kim regime, which may become clearer in due course.
Persisting with denuclearisation could complicate issues for all parties. For example, would the goal be only to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapon capability or would it include the US? Why would North Korea agree to give up its nuclear weapon capability without a quid pro quo? Would the US and South Korea, on the other hand, be willing to forego South Korea’s nuclear umbrella and agree to withdraw US Forces from the country? Further, the denuclearisation goal reinforces the much criticised double standards inherent in the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons treaty.
Intentionally or not, the summit may provide an opportunity for a new chapter on the Korean peninsula. It provides an opportunity to get away from the denuclearisation problem that is almost impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all relevant parties. As mentioned earlier, nuclear weapons are symptomatic of insecurity and conflict and countries that attain them will not easily give them up.
The best approach after a country attains nuclear weapons would be to address the cause of conflict among concerned parties. Resolving the conflict will reduce the significance of nuclear weapons. By addressing the international insecurity concerns of Kim’s regime, the summit provides an avenue to deal with the problem at the political level and gradually strengthen international peace on the peninsula.
Although it is possible to argue that North Korea has not agreed to denuclearise and the situation thus remains the same as before, it is well to remember it was a de-facto nuclear weapon state before the summit and that so far, there has been no war between nuclear powers. At best, nuclear weapons are a deterrent. They play little or no role in achieving offensive or other objectives like blackmail. Proponents of blackmail have thus far have offered little evidence for their claims.
The summit did not change this situation. By declaring their implicit intentions to avoid nuclear war and to resolve the Korean problem through dialogue, both countries have made the transition to a minimum peace. The significance of nuclear weapons and, more generally, of military force in the conflict has been reduced. It will be difficult to ratchet up tensions between North Korea and the US to a level that could precipitate war, as was the case about six months ago.
Further, the inter-Korean summit that preceded the Trump-Kim summit unequivocally committed both parties to resolving the Korean problem through dialogue (high-level meetings). South Korea shudders at the thought of war with North Korea as it will be the victim. The Moon administration in South Korea is committed to peace in the peninsula. It has, and can be expected, to use its influence on Washington to build a “peace regime” on the Korean peninsula.
Strengthening a peace regime
Strengthening a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, not denuclearisation, should now become the primary objective of all parties. Here, North Korea and South Korea must take the lead in addressing the core political problems between them. Unification would be a direct threat to the security of the Kim regime and be very costly for South Korea. It may be best in the foreseeable future for the two countries to exist as separate political entities living in peace with each other.
Removal of hostile intentions would go a long way to creating a peace regime. The two Koreas could jointly initiate a peace treaty to replace the existing armistice agreement on the peninsula. Deterrence may continue to be important, especially in the early stages, but military force, including nuclear weapons, will became less significant over time. Suspension of joint military exercises by South Korea and the US will help strengthen a peace regime. Peaceful exchanges between the two Koreas and normalisation of the International position of North Korea would add to his.
It should be observed here that resolving the inter-Korean conflict would have little or no impact on other relationships in the region, such as that between the two Koreas and Japan, the two Koreas and China, and between Japan and Russia, thus exposing the weakness of the claim that the Korean conflict holds the key to peace and security in Northeast or East Asia. The differences and conflicts among these countries will have to be addressed on their own terms.
Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is Distinguished Scholar in Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. He is also Visiting Professor, Asia-Europe Institute, University Malaya.