Opinion: How to understand what’s happening in North Korea


North Korea doesn’t have enough food, it lacks Facebook and Beyoncé, and its diplomats have to ration their use of computers in the Foreign Ministry because of electricity shortages.

But North Korea excels at choreography and theater, and its officials are well educated, very savvy, and agile with a pirouette. So we have peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula — and President Donald Trump gets some credit for that.

As Kim Jong Un stepped into South Korea on Friday — the first North Korean leader to do so — let’s acknowledge that he has played a weak hand exceptionally well. Kim is now aiming to squirm out of sanctions, build up his economy and retain his nuclear arsenal, all while remaining a global focus of attention. It’s a remarkable performance.

Trump’s tightening of sanctions and his belligerent rhetoric genuinely did change the equation. All this was meant to intimidate Kim, but it mostly alarmed President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and galvanized him to undertake successful Olympic diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the North-South summit meeting.

Kim then parlayed that progress into meetings with both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of which reflected longtime North Korean goals. And on Friday Kim and Moon adopted a declaration promising “no more war,” “a new era of peace” and “complete denuclearization.”

Inspiring, but count me skeptical.

North and South Korean leaders have signed grand peace documents before, in 2000 and 2007, and neither lasted. In 2012, North Korea agreed not to test missiles and then weeks later fired one off but called it a “satellite” launch.

When North Korea talks about “complete denuclearization,” it typically means that the U.S. ends its alliance with South Korea, and then North Korea will no longer need nuclear weapons to defend itself. North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1950s, and I don’t know any expert who thinks that it will genuinely hand over its arsenal.

Kim’s game plan seems to be to sign pledges for denuclearization, leaving details to be worked out in follow-up talks, knowing that they won’t be fully implemented and that there will never be intrusive inspections. This may be disingenuous on the part of North Korea, but that’s not so terrible: It provides a face-saving way for both North Korea and the U.S. to back away from the precipice of war.

In the meantime, I’m guessing that the North will halt all nuclear and missile testing (hopefully, including short-range missiles), and will stop production of plutonium at its reactors in Yongbyon (North Korea may also claim to stop enriching uranium, but that’s more difficult to verify). In exchange, China and South Korea will quietly ease sanctions — and Kim will get what he has always wanted, the legitimacy of being treated as a world leader, as an equal, and as the ruler of a de facto nuclear state.

Both Kim and Trump benefit politically from that scenario, and for that matter so does the world: Hard-liners will fume that we’re being played and that the North is not verifiably giving up nuclear weapons — true — but it’s all preferable to war.

In effect, the emerging framework is a backdoor route to a nuclear cap or to the “freeze for a freeze” solution that North Korea and China have previously recommended and that Trump has rejected. It may all fall apart. But it’s possible now to envision a path away from war, and for that even we skeptics should be grateful.

Writes for The New York Times.



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