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Beware the Korean Peace Trap

Beware the Korean Peace Trap

Thursday, 3 May, 2018 - 07:30
On the surface it looks like the doubters were wrong.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, traveled into South Korea on Friday to meet his counterpart. They agreed in principle at least to formally end the war that has divided the peninsula they share. Kim even agreed to a joint statement calling for the denuclearization of the peninsula. What's not to like?

Plenty. To understand why, examine the "Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula" issued by Kim and President Moon Jae-in Friday after their meeting.

Let's start with the issue most important to America and North Korea's neighbors, the nuclear file. The joint communique says, "South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula." It also says the two states "shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard."

Finally it pledged that both would seek help and cooperation from the international community to achieve the goal of denuclearization.

That sounds pretty good, but it isn't. North Koreans have historically used the phrase "denuclearization" to mean the US should no longer extend its nuclear umbrella to protect South Korea. As former senior State Department official Evans Revere explained in a recent policy brief for the Brookings Institution, North Korean interlocutors have explained the concept in talks to US officials and experts as "the elimination of the 'threat' posed by the US-South Korea alliance, by US troops on the Korean Peninsula, and by the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends South Korea and Japan."

Revere goes on to say that in return for those steps that would undermine the US-South Korean alliance, North Koreans have offered to "'consider denuclearization in 10-20 years' time if Pyongyang feels 'secure.'" Maybe they mean something different this time around. But it's a red flag that Kim is agreeing to the same phrase that in past discussions has meant something very different than verifiable disarmament.

Then there is the strange language about how Kim's recent announcement to pause missile tests is considered by both leaders "very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." It isn't.

As Kim himself said in his New Year's Day address, he no longer sees a need to test its intercontinental ballistic missiles.The real test of Kim's commitment for denuclearization will be measured in the level of transparency he provides to weapons inspectors.

Along those lines it's particularly troubling that South Korea appears to agree to stop allowing its citizens to send leaflets over the border to break North Korea's information monopoly over its citizens. The communique says, "The two sides agreed to transform the demilitarized zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 1 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means."

This is hugely detrimental to the North Korean people.

Finally, President Donald Trump should be careful about next steps. He needs to make sure South Korea will not seek a separate peace with its rival. He also needs to get a better sense of the real steps Kim will take to disarm. Until then, Trump should slow the diplomacy down and wait. Kim has shown he is adept at getting optimistic headlines. That is a testament to his connivance, not his intentions.


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