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What if (almost all) the Experts on North Korea have Got it Wrong?

(An earlier version of this draft was posted on the website of the Canadian Defence Association Institute on 15 May 2018 at

Photo courtesy of CNN

There is, of course, plenty that could still go wrong between Washington and Pyongyang in the lead-up to and at the Trump/Kim Jong-Un summit. Everything points to the fact, however, that it will now proceed as planned on 12 June. I also expect that there is a better than even chance that the summit will result in a grand deal, but not one that is in the interests of the United States and its traditional allies in the region and even further afield.

I say this because I believe there is a half-dozen or so dimensions of the Korean Question that I think North Korean experts – and especially those working out of the US – need to rethink. Here is my short list of what I consider to be their misunderstandings – and the myths that have been propagated in the process.

One myth revolves around the presumption that there was significant tension between North Korea and the People’s Republic of China in the lead-up to the recently concluded all-Korean Summit and more generally.

There are two aspects to this argument. One notion is that Pyongyang’s aggressive nuclear security policies have supposedly been undercutting China’s efforts to peacefully establish its unchallengeable hegemony in East Asia. On the contrary. Pyongyang’s strategic build-up has created greater scope for calling into question the American role in the region and in turn enhancing that of China.

The other aspect imputes to China a fear that a united Korea would become a regional rival. Really? China has a population of 1.4 billion, South Korea, 50 million, and North Korea, 25 million. China’s economy is 15% of the global total, South Korea’s is 2.3%, North Korea’s is 0.03%. The numbers speak for themselves.

A related myth is that Russia is not a major player in this effort. No. Russia is one of the three states that share a border with North Korea. Putin and Xi Ping are aligned in a strategic alliance. Both want America to withdraw from East Asia and are using the North Korean nuclear programme to this end.

By the way, Russia has plenty of experience in transferring nuclear weapons technology to third parties. One of its initial experiences in this regard was with communist China. As I have argued elsewhere, the huge build-up in the North Korean strategic nuclear capacity since Kim the Third’s ascension in 2011 would have been impossible without an enormous boost from abroad. Russia is likely to have been the main booster, while China will have been complicit.

A third myth that we can now put to rest is that Kim Jong-Un is an unstable youngster who does not really know what he is doing. Nothing of the sort. Kim the Third has demonstrated that he is fully capable of negotiating a complex strategic pathway and, if necessary, radically changing course. This was very much on display in his recent summit with his South Korean counterpart. I expect it will also be in evidence when he sits down with the American president.

A fourth myth is that the sanctions regime imposed on North Korea has been working. The numbers that have been provided about the fall in trade between North Korea and China, the former’s most important economic partner, mostly come from PRC sources. There have been several stories about efforts to sidestep the sanctions through the transfer of goods by boat, recently with North Korean ships using Chinese and Russian ports. Perhaps, most importantly, North Koreans are supreme tunnel builders as anyone who has visited the DMZ will know. And then there is the small but still relevant North Korean-Russian border that is subject to less scrutiny than the North Korean-PRC one.

And Trump’s role in all this? Do we really think that the American president’s bombastic threats have moved North Korea to the negotiating table? The bottom line is that an American strike on North Korea would have put at risk the over 200,000 Americans residing in South Korea, including a contingent of almost 30,000 military personnel. Kim the Third will have understood that Trump’s blustering about punishing North Korea was empty rhetoric. The last person who should receive the Nobel Peace Prize is Donald Trump.

We also need to think critically about what denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula could really signify. At its most basic, this would mean that North Korea would phase out its nuclear capacity as the Americans reduced their strategic presence in the region. But just how credible would this be? During the last quarter century, North Korea has backtracked on several occasions on international understandings and/or agreements designed to reign in or phase out its strategic capacity. Nothing has changed in the structure of North Korean politics in the interim to suggest that this pattern would not repeat itself.

If my understanding of what is going on between North Korea, China and Russia is correct, it would be relatively easy for North Korea to preside over a phased denuclearisation in parallel with an American one. The crucial difference would be that North Korea would retain the capability to reconstitute its nuclear capability, with the ready capacity of China and Russia just over its borders, while that of the U.S. would be subject to congressional debate.

I also suspect that at the same time this is about Russia and China wanting to give Trump a success on the Korea file in an effort to create a situation in which they can more easily extract concessions in other policy areas. That Trump has been playing -off and on- hardball with the two powers is all about staging a scenario in which the BIG THREE can do a BIG DEAL. At the end of the day, this may not work, but it very well may.

# North Korea

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