North Korea doesn’t have enough food, it lacks Facebook and Beyoncé, and its diplomats have to ration their use of computers in the Foreign Ministry because of electricity shortages.
But North Korea excels at choreography and theater, and its officials are well educated, very savvy, and agile with a pirouette. So we have peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula – and President Donald Trump gets some credit for that.
As with any circus performance, it’s amazing to behold but not quite as billed.
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As Kim Jong Un stepped into South Korea on Friday – the first North Korean leader to do so – let’s acknowledge that he has played a weak hand exceptionally well. Kim is now aiming to squirm out of sanctions, build up his economy and retain his nuclear arsenal, all while remaining a global focus of attention. It’s a remarkable performance.
“North Korea expert” is an oxymoron, but from someone who has been covering the country since the 1980s, here’s my take on why we should be deeply skeptical – and yet relieved, even a bit hopeful.
Trump’s tightening of sanctions and his belligerent rhetoric genuinely did change the equation. All this was meant to intimidate Kim, but it mostly alarmed President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and galvanized him to undertake successful Olympic diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the North-South summit meeting.
Kim then parlayed that progress into meetings with both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of which reflected longtime North Korean goals. And on Friday Kim and Moon adopted a declaration promising “no more war,” “a new era of peace” and “complete denuclearization.”
Inspiring, but count me skeptical.
North and South Korean leaders have signed grand peace documents before, in 2000 and 2007, and neither lasted. In 2012, North Korea agreed not to test missiles and then weeks later fired one off but called it a “satellite” launch.
When North Korea talks about “complete denuclearization,” it typically means that the U.S. ends its alliance with South Korea, and then North Korea will no longer need nuclear weapons to defend itself. North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1950s, and I don’t know any expert who thinks that it will genuinely hand over its arsenal.
On my last visit to North Korea, in September, a Foreign Ministry official told me that Libya had given up its nuclear program – only to have its regime toppled. Likewise, he noted, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lacked a nuclear deterrent – so Saddam was ousted by America. North Korea would not make the same mistake, he insisted.
It’s even less likely that North Korea will give up its nukes now that it sees Trump poised to tear up the Iran nuclear deal.
Kim’s game plan seems to be to sign pledges for denuclearization, leaving details to be worked out in follow-up talks, knowing that they won’t be fully implemented and that there will never be intrusive inspections. This may be disingenuous on the part of North Korea, but that’s not so terrible: It provides a face-saving way for both North Korea and the U.S. to back away from the precipice of war.
Trump and Kim both badly want a meeting, so expect North Korea to release its three American detainees in the coming weeks and to make soothing statements. Trump and Kim will present themselves as historic peacemakers as they sign some kind of declaration calling for peace and denuclearization, with some kind of timetable; Trump’s aides will then say that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize more than Barack Obama did.
I hope Trump will also raise human rights issues. A commission of inquiry suggested that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity “on a massive scale” in its labor camps, and we should push for access to these camps by humanitarian organizations.
“Over 100,000 people, a figure that includes countless innocent family members of so-called enemies of the state, are effectively consigned to die in North Korea’s political prisons,” Navi Pillay, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told me. “The forced abortions, infanticide, persecution of Christians, torture and summary executions that regularly occur in those various facilities are well documented. President Trump can demand that the Red Cross and the international community be given access to North Korea’s prisons and labor camp systems.”
In the meantime, I’m guessing that the North will halt all nuclear and missile testing (hopefully, including short-range missiles), and will stop production of plutonium at its reactors in Yongbyon (North Korea may also claim to stop enriching uranium, but that’s more difficult to verify). In exchange, China and South Korea will quietly ease sanctions – and Kim will get what he has always wanted, the legitimacy of being treated as a world leader, as an equal, and as the ruler of a de facto nuclear state.
Both Kim and Trump benefit politically from that scenario, and for that matter so does the world: Hard-liners will fume that we’re being played and that the North is not verifiably giving up nuclear weapons – true – but it’s all preferable to war.
How does this end? The West’s plan is to drag things along until the North collapses. This may happen. The problem is that it was also the U.S. plan in 1994 in a previous nuclear deal. And I confess that I chose to be The New York Times’ bureau chief in Tokyo in the late 1990s partly so that I could cover what I thought might be the collapse soon of the North Korean regime. I learned not to make predictions about the timing of the demise of the Kim dynasty.
In effect, the emerging framework is a backdoor route to a nuclear cap or to the “freeze for a freeze” solution that North Korea and China have previously recommended and that Trump has rejected. It may all fall apart. But it’s possible now to envision a path away from war, and for that even we skeptics should be grateful.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.