There are big things happening on the Korean peninsula. Today’s declaration of peace is a massive moment in Korean history, and it is being greeted with tremendous excitement (my wife, who is from Seoul, was physically jumping with joy at the news). You can understand why people are getting so worked up. After all, it’s the first time since 1950 that both countries will be formally at peace, and the spectacle of the two Korean leaders crossing the border while holding hands was an emotional sight. But at the risk of sounding contrarian, I can’t help but think that everyone needs to calm down a bit.
Yes, these talks are important – historic even – but they don’t necessarily spell the end of North Korea acting like a rogue state. Beyond a few soundbites, there’s no sign that Kim Jong-un has decided to switch from being a Stalin to a Gorbachev.
We need to remember that Kim is someone who has shown himself to be well-versed in the darkest arts of politics. He’s the sort of character who would thrive in Game of Thrones, massacring close family members who might pose a threat to him. This is a man who, just a few weeks ago, was holding the world to hostage, with warnings of imminent nuclear strikes against US territories in the Pacific. In short, he’s hardly someone who has shown himself to be ‘trustworthy’.
We have to ask why Kim has decided to come to the negotiating table. It’s very likely that his decision is not because international sanctions are starting to hit. Even if they are creating some economic pain, which is debatable, it’s clear things are nowhere near as bad for North Korea as they were during the famines of the 1990s.
So maybe, just maybe, Kim has had a big change of heart, and his willingness to cross the border is down to an earnest desire to change his country. A more likely scenario is that Kim, who has now shown the world that he has the power to defend himself with the press of a button, is now less keen to keep huge numbers of expensive conventional forces on permanent standby. In fact, Kim seems to be entering these talks from a position of strength. After all, he has demonstrated that he has the power if he wants to use it to wipe a few countries off the face of the map.
That’s why we need to treat Kim’s claim that he is willing to denuclearise with a big pinch of salt. Kim’s desire to have nukes isn’t just from a desire to strut his stuff on the world stage; they’re also seen as a vital lifeline, the tools that will help to ensure that the United States can never launch a preemptive strike against his regime. Remember that, for well over a decade, North Korea has put building nuclear weapons at the very top of its national ‘to do’ list (it’s certainly been above ‘feeding the population’). The idea that Kim would willingly hand over the weapons that he and his father spent so much time and money on is pretty laughable. Doubtless there will be a lot of talk of nuclear disarmament, and a few stunts in the coming weeks and months, but we need to remain sceptical. There are plenty of ways for Kim to hide his nuclear arsenal. Even if peace is declared, there is a good chance that Kim will be threatening nuclear strikes again in the future in a bid to get his way.
Now I don’t want to sound like too much of a downer; as Churchill said, jaw jaw is always preferable to war war. And it’s not impossible that Kim has come to speak to the West with a sincere desire to strike a deal and to change his country for the better. Even if it turns out that that’s not the case, these talks could nonetheless still be a success. Bit-by-bit, the ‘hermit kingdom’ mentality that has dominated for so long in Pyongyang could start to be chipped away.
That sort of change – a gradual opening up of North Korea – would be ideal, and something everyone should be aiming for. There is a lot to be optimistic about, but before we start celebrating and declaring ‘mission accomplished’ we should remember that Kim Jong-un is the one riding shotgun in these negotiations. And that means we also need to remain cautious: the North Korean menace isn’t gone yet.
Oliver Lewis is a Director at Hanbury Strategy