The following article, which appears in print in the May issue of the Washington Spectator, has been updated for online publication to reflect recent developments in the negotiations underway with North Korea.
If you are hopeful that the pending talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will bring an imminent end to the nearly 68-year-long Korean War, don’t bet on it. The 1953 armistice, which was struck by military leaders of North Korea, the United States, South Korea, and their United Nations allies to halt the fighting, was in fact never concluded by a peace agreement to bring a formal end to a war in which, over three years, some 4 million people perished. The Korean War was a turning point for the United States, it precipitated the quadrupling of military spending between 1951 and 1952 and paved the way for creation of the most destructive global military force in history.
First and foremost, a formal peace accord, the prospect of which is now being raised by North and South Korea, will have to address the large U.S. military presence that has been in the region for more than two generations. North Korea has reportedly agreed going into the talks to accept the U.S. military presence, but it remains to be seen if the U.S. will agree to alter its military posture and force structure from one of war preparation to a goal of non-aggression. That Trump recently changed his position on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement three times in a week, and impulsively walked back on Russian sanctions, undermining his staff and UN ambassador, does not inspire confidence that this thorny problem can be worked out.
I spent some time at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site while working in the Energy Department in 1994 and 1995 to secure spent reactor fuel containing plutonium that North Korea had planned to extract for its first nuclear weapons. Our work at the time was the direct outgrowth of a nuclear non-proliferation agreement signed by the U.S. and North Korea in 1994. Based on that experience, I view it as essential that ascertaining the true nature and degree of the North’s nuclear weapons production should be on the short list of priorities in the current negotiations.
That this will be extremely difficult, without good-faith cooperation, is an understatement, especially for the accounting of weapons and vital components, which are very likely stored in the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels built after bombings in the 1950’s. Other than former Soviet states that returned their nuclear weapons to Russia, the only country that gave up its nuclear weapons is South Africa, and this happened only after the ruling apartheid government peacefully relinquished its power in 1990.
Despite recent hopeful statements about denuclearization, it may be too late to expect the North Koreans to relinquish their nuclear arms any time soon. That bridge was dismantled in the decades-long pursuit of regime change by hard-Right forces in U.S. political leadership, a pursuit that not only provided a powerful incentive but also plenty of time for the North Koreans to amass a nuclear arsenal.
Despite recent hopeful statements about denuclearization, it may be too late to expect the North Koreans to relinquish their nuclear arms any time soon.
Although North Korea recently announced it was halting nuclear and long-range missile testing, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, clearly outlined what he expects going into talks with Trump in a speech given in January of this year. First, North Korea must be recognized and treated as a nuclear weapons state with potential long-range missiles. He is willing to discuss nuclear arms control on a step-by-step basis. Denuclearization, in the eyes of North Korea, also means a process in the U.S. that will reduce and change the mission of its military on the peninsula, which is predicated on resuming war with the North.
It’s no mystery that North Korea wants the exact opposite of the “all or nothing” demand by John Bolton, President Trump’s polarizing new National Security Advisor, to promptly give up its nuclear arms or face a war.
As recently as late December of last year, Bolton, a leading keeper of the regime change flame, told Fox News, “I think the only diplomatic option left is to eliminate the regime by reunifying the peninsula under South Korean control.” According to Bolton, it has to be “regime elimination (conducted) with the Chinese. This is something we need to do with them.”
Even though China may not oppose a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, Bolton proceeded to undermine the prospect of Chinese cooperation when in February 2018 he declared in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. was legally justified to launch a first strike against North Korea. Six months before Bolton’s belligerent outburst, China warned it would honor the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty and would intervene militarily in any hostile actions initiated against its regional partner. The last thing that China seeks is a war. However, let’s not forget that China sent 3 million troops to defend North Korea in the 1950s.
China shares many of the same goals as North Korea—maintaining the existing regime, preserving regional stability, and setting a freeze, at most, on nuclear arms development. Meeting the U.S. demand for complete denuclearization could lead to a geopolitical shift on the Korean Peninsula that could disadvantage China, leaving the acknowledged superpower with diminished regional leverage. In addition, South Korea, under President Moon’s leadership, is detaching itself from the U.S. hardline position by seeking a preliminary rapprochement with the North, resuming efforts that were suspended for some 20 years.
Little mention in the run up to the Trump-Kim summit is given to Russia, which it is worth recalling also shares a border with North Korea and has long played an historic role in its development. Russia, especially under the Putin regime, has expanded economic ties with Pyongyang that include major transportation and energy systems. Russia is keen on building nuclear power plants in North Korea and establishing a major natural gas pipeline through the border with North Korea into Asia. Even though Russia recently supported stronger sanctions, it has been “laundering” North Korean coal exports, a major source of revenue for the North Korean economy. Russia does not support regime change and certainly seeks to enhance its strategic interests in the Far East.
How Trump will handle Bolton is one of the biggest questions affecting the outcome of the meeting. Combining threats with concessions has characterized negotiations with North Korea for decades. However, this mode does not sit well with Bolton, who has consistently advocated for war as the best path for the U.S. to achieve its goals. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State (whose confirmation is stirring resistance in the Senate and should not be considered a foregone conclusion), has apparently taken the lead on the North Korea negotiations. Will he offset the belligerence of Bolton, and continue in the steps of the banished Rex Tillerson, who repeatedly assured North Korea that the U.S. is not seeking regime change? Given the positive hype Trump is giving to this meeting, it is possible he understands that pushing for regime change will turn it into an embarrassing disaster. Trump has already given himself an escape hatch, by announcing shortly after Pompeo’s recent visit to North Korea that he’ll walk away if the talks “are not fruitful.”
The last time regime change was seriously taken off the table was in 1994. In the spring and summer of that year, the United States was on a collision course with North Korea over its efforts to produce the plutonium needed to fuel its first nuclear weapons. This confrontation was resolved with a bilateral non-proliferation pact known as the Agreed Framework, signed in October 1994. It remains the only government-to-government accord ever made between the United States and North Korea.
North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for heavy fuel oil, economic cooperation, and the construction of two modern light-water nuclear power plants. During Clinton’s second term, the administration was moving towards establishing a more normalized relationship with the North. Presidential advisor Wendy Sherman described an agreement with North Korea to eliminate its medium and long-range missiles as “tantalizingly close” before final negotiations were overtaken by the 2000 presidential election.
But the Framework was bitterly opposed by many Republicans, and when the GOP took control of Congress in 1995, it threw roadblocks in the way of key elements of the agreement. After George W. Bush was elected president, his administration promptly began to terminate the agreement and established an explicit policy of regime change. In January 2002, Bush declared North Korea as a charter member of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address. By the fall of that year, North Korea was singled out publicly as a potential nuclear target.
These huge steps backward set the stage for a hostile confrontation at a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and North Korean Officials at Pyongyang in October 2002, during which the U.S. demanded that North Korea cease a “secret” uranium enrichment program or face severe consequences. By 1999, this enrichment project was well-known in the Congress after intelligence findings by the U.S. Energy Department about North Korea’s pursuit of enrichment was reported in the national news media. North Korea had strictly complied with the Agreed Framework, freezing plutonium production for eight years. This problem could have been fixed using an existing provision in the agreement dealing with enrichment. North Korea, after its offer during a break in the 2002 meeting to put uranium enrichment on the table was spurned, per instructions from the White House, promptly withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and began to produce nuclear weapons—igniting a full-blown crisis. Since then, the North has exploded six ever-more powerful nuclear weapons and is now near the threshold of possessing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
There are other vital geo-political concerns, the status of which will affect the outcome of the U.S.—North Korea talks. For example, if Trump and Bolton act on their oft-stated desire to pull the plug on the Iran nuclear agreement, it is unlikely North Korea will be willing to embark on a path of denuclearization, not to mention the adverse consequences such a step will have on the fragile non-proliferation regime in the Middle East. North Korea, for its part, has repeatedly stated it will not fall into the same trap as Gaddafi, who, after being threatened, gave up Libya’s very limited pursuit of nuclear weapons only to be overthrown. True to form, Bolton sees the Libyan outcome as a success to be emulated.
A largely obscured element of this crisis involves Japan. With the third largest domestic nuclear program in the world behind the US and France, Japan holds about 5.3 metric tons of separated plutonium—enough to fuel some 1000 nuclear weapons—and has advanced ballistic missiles and naval forces. Although Japan’s constitution bars the development of nuclear weapons, and relies on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in January of this year, “If they [the North Koreans] continue to have nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons must spread in the rest of Asia.” He added, “Nor can it be that Japan will sit there.”
Lifting the ban on making nuclear weapons is now widely opposed by the public in Japan. But, a very important lesson is how quickly the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident unraveled a strong national consensus in Japan in support of the “peaceful atom.” A bigger looming threat may not be a North Korean missile hitting the U.S., but rather the collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation regime in the Far East. This is an especially serious concern with respect to Japan, which continues to engender bitter regional memories of its brutal colonial rule over Korea and China in a not-so-distant 20th century.
An ideal outcome for the upcoming meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un would be the establishment of a more serious dialogue that would somehow be insulated from Bolton’s predilections. A state of dormant war continues to exist on the Korean Peninsula and threatens to reawaken with unprecedented consequences for the rest of the world. The first order of business is to find a path to end this war, once and for all.
A senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, Robert Alvarez served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999. During this tenure, he coordinated the Energy Department’s nuclear material strategic planning and established the department’s first asset management program.