Gordon G. Chang
YESTERDAY, the Wall Street Journal reported that at the turn of the year the Obama administration discussed the initiation of talks with North Korea with the goal of formally ending the Korean War, which was only suspended by a truce, not ended with a treaty, in 1953.
According to the Journal report, the White House dropped the US’s long-standing precondition that the North would have to end its nuclear program before talks could begin. Instead, the administration said that denuclearization would simply be an agenda item in the peace negotiations.
The North reportedly rejected Obama’s overture, refusing to permit its nuclear program to even be placed on the agenda. Pyongyang then detonated a nuclear device on January 6, ending the White House’s “diplomatic gambit.”
The paper’s report, if true, indicates the Obama administration was willing to execute another stunning reversal of American policy by essentially accepting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a nuclear state and condoning its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It’s difficult to assess the White House’s diplomatic goals and strategies. On the one hand, the about-face would likely further weaken US credibility on non-proliferation as it was prepared to overlook North Korea’s secret and illegal nuclear program, essentially recognize it as a nuclear state, and reward it with peace talks. On the other hand, the White House’s diplomacy hints of brilliance. As David Maxwell of Georgetown University points out, President Obama called Kim Jong Un’s bluff – and by doing so exposed the Kim family as needing war to justify its claims, its militarism, its abuse of its citizens, and for that matter, its existence.
For decades, Kim leaders have demanded a peace treaty. When offered one, the current Kim refused to even talk about it. Peace, in reality, is actually inimical to the Kim regime. It cannot agree to a treaty formally ending the war because such an agreement would immediately undermine its core legitimacy and its mission to unify the peninsula under its rule.
A treaty, by necessity, would mean the North accepted the existence of the South Korean state, and that is not something Kim could explain to his people. For decades, North Koreans have been asked to accept hardship to allow Kim rulers to defeat the “puppets” in Seoul.
Furthermore, Maxwell notes Pyongyang’s rebuff of the Obama administration undermines the notion that the international community can engage North Korea. The rejection of talks, as a practical matter, further isolates the North, gives the White House a freer hand to mobilize other countries, opens the door to a substantially more coercive policy, and effectively makes Beijing’s call this month for more talks with Kim seem cynical.
None of this is to say that, in the end, President Obama will deal effectively with the North Koreans, but whether by accident or design, the US now appears better positioned to counter, deter, and disarm North Korea.