No, despite what we hear more or less constantly from present and former government officials and other supposed experts, the relationship between the United States and North Korea is not about nuclear weapons and “dismantling” North Korea’s nuclear program. It is about the Korean War. It is about the division of Korea at the 38th parallel near the end of World War II between a government installed by the Soviet Union in the North, and one installed by the United States in the South. It is about “unification”. In American policy since that time, the definition of “unification” has been, and still is, that the Communist regime in the North will end and the regime in the South will absorb that territory.
A little history is called for. Near the end of WW II, American and Soviet forces moved into the Korean peninsula to liberate it from the Japanese. When they met, as they were also meeting in Germany, a deal was made. Germany and Korea would be divided. In Korea, the line was drawn to leave Seoul in the South, and in Germany, Berlin was divided among the allies. Then came the Cold War.
In 1950, the leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, a protege of Stalin who built his governance on the Soviet model, attempted to unify Korea by invading the South. He very nearly succeeded in driving the Southern and American forces off the peninsula until a surprise attack behind his lines allowed the allies to counter-attack. He almost won the war. They drove north, past the dividing line and nearly to the Chinese border. They almost won the war. The Chinese intervened and drove the allies back to the 38th parallel where a ceasefire was negotiated restoring the status quo ante. The entire country, both parts of it, were devastated. At the height of the drive North, General MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons and continue on into China. President Truman disagreed and relieved him of command. Since then, there have been some who have clung to the “We weren’t allowed to win.” narrative. If that sounds familiar, think of Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and Afghanistan.
Since then, the United States has consistently described the North Korean regime as illegitimate, a rogue regime, criminal, insane, dangerously aggressive, untrustworthy, cheaters, and part of an axis of evil. The only significant change in that language came in President Trump’s remarks at the end of his summit meeting with Chairman Kim in Shanghai. Others, are confused and busily attempting to reinterpret the statements into coherence with the “Bad North Korea” narrative, including using the word “unification”. Mr. Trump seems not to understand that the goal is, as it has been, to win the Korean War, but maybe he thinks the North Koreans are fooled by his brilliant deal making.
Another thing I’ve noticed in all the talk about North Korea is that our experts do not seem to see any difference between Kim Jong Un and his father and grandfather. They speak as if they are the same person, personality, belief system, and ambitions. They are wrong. This Dear Leader does not look to Moscow for inspiration and advice. He looks to, and goes to, China. Growing up, he has had a front row seat to watch the rise of China and the policies and methods of the leaders who have managed it. He sees there a model for what may be his ambitions for his country. He is a young man, and if he can keep his health and not catastrophically screw up, he can expect to be leading his country for another fifty or sixty years. He has time.
So, if he sees how trapped the United States is in the “have to win the war” way of thinking, what can he do to change it and escape the state of siege that has driven policy and practice in his country for two generations? Impressing Donald Trump and getting him to like him is not enough. Now that he is back home, Trump is listening to other voices. Kim and his advisers certainly know better than to trust American talk of “security guarantees” without a great deal of proof over a long time.
What he can do, which I suspect he may already be working toward, is together with President Moon of South Korea, make actual peace, enact a formal peace treaty, and end the war. It is, after all, their war, although the Americans seem to think it belongs to them, it is theirs. They can end it. They can recognize each other’s regimes as legitimate, establish normal diplomatic relations, and begin to stand down their military forces on the border. They can put the dream of unification off to some future generation not shaped by endless threat of war. Even so, they could, as they began to do at the Winter Olympics, indulge in many symbolic gestures of unity as a people, such as fielding joint Olympic teams, perhaps joint national Soccer team that might compete in the World Cup some day, and celebrations of shared culture. I think they must do it, and take their common fate out of the hands of others, especially Donald Trump, and the Cold Warriors who surround him.
They would have to keep their preparations for such an action quite secret until the actual announcement and signing. If Trump were to get wind of it, he would try to take it over and possibly mess it up. He has dreamed of Nobel prize. If they do make peace real, it should be the two of them on that stage in Oslo.
What would our policy and chattering class make of such a development? Its hard to say. Some would surely say it is a trick. For others, it might be the cognitive dissonance wack up the side of the head they need to begin to rethink a lot of their preconceptions. But, how could they say “No” to peace for long?