By: SARAH HEYWOOD
Nanjing: News agencies around the globe are in a frenzy after President Trump accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and for good reason. The meeting, predicted to be held sometime in May, will be a symbolic first – the first talks in history between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader (the highest-level American official to meet with a North Korean leader to date is former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who visited Pyongyang in 2000). That being said, we must not let our desire for progress give way to unrealistic expectations. Let’s be real, the Trump-Kim meeting is just for show. It’s an opportunity for Trump to boast of the “great progress” achieved under his administration, and an opportunity for Kim to prove that North Korea is a political equal to the U.S. on the world stage. Before we get too excited about Kim’s “commitment to denuclearization,” here are a few important things to keep in mind:
Lessons from history
This isn’t the first time that North Korea has toyed with the idea of denuclearization. Pyongyang has gained a reputation for dangling the idea in front of the U.S. whenever it wants something, hoping to wrangle concessions from the U.S. and using the negotiations to buy more time to hone its nuclear arsenal. Take the 1994 Agreed Framework, for example, under which Pyongyang committed to the freezing and eventual dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program in exchange for international aid. North Korea received yearly fuel provisions until the framework fell apart in 2002, following the U.S. announcement that North Korea admitted to operating a clandestine nuclear weapons program in violation of the agreement.
Similarly, under the auspices of the six-party talks, a tentative agreement was reached in 2005 when North Korea pledged to surrender its nuclear weapons program in return for the provision of aid and economic cooperation. However, shortly following the agreement, North Korea announced its first successful nuclear weapons test in 2006.
Historically, Kim Jong Un has no reason to trust the U.S. either. As is frequently mentioned by North Korean officials, the downfall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi began when he agreed to abandon his nuclear weapons program in 2003. This enabled an uprising backed by the U.S. and NATO to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
Deep-rooted mistrust on both sides is a major stumbling block to progress. Who moves first? North Korean denuclearization or the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea? Before any substantial progress can take place, some semblance of mutual trust must be established between Washington and Pyongyang.
Testimonies from North Korean defectors
Since Kim Jong Un came into power, he has made the advancement of nuclear weapons technology the nation’s top priority. Out of the six total nuclear weapons tests in North Korea, four have been carried out after Kim Jong Un became leader in 2011, with each weapon stronger than the last. Though Kim Jong Un may say that he is committed to denuclearization, reports from North Korean defectors suggest that the North Korean leader is unlikely to follow through with such promises.
Through my volunteer work as a Korean to English translator for PSCORE (People for Successful Corean Reunification), a South Korean NGO, I’ve learned a lot about Kim Jong Un’s promotion of nuclear weapons. One defector expressed that the government propagates claims like, “Because we have nuclear weapons, we can vanquish everyone with our strength.” Another defector was told that “we must have nuclear weapons to live” because “nuclear weapons allow us to confront America,” and after Kim Jong Un came into power, one defector stated that documentaries came out nearly every week, stressing that “through our nuclear weapons, we are a great military power.”
Based on these testimonies, it seems like a Trump-Kim meeting will be used as propaganda to demonstrate that North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities have made it a political equal of the U.S. Rather than serve as a reason to denuclearize, it may well incite greater emphasis on the importance of nuclear weapons to North Korean survival.
For the above reasons, I am skeptical of what immediate gains we can realistically expect from the Trump-Kim meeting. It seems like this meeting is just a chance for Trump to stroke his ego by undertaking something none of his predecessors accomplished, and for Kim to attempt to loosen sanctions and gain international legitimacy as the U.S.’s political equal. This is not to say that the meeting should not take place – dialogue in any form is better than the current status quo. However, it’s just the beginning. For any substantial progress to be made, Trump needs to lay a positive foundation for continuing communication with the North. My hope is that Trump refrains from hurling any insults and leaves the deal-making to the experts.
Sarah Heywood is a staff writer at the Nanjing Bureau. She is an HNC Certificate/SAIS MA student currently completing her certificate at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center before starting at SAIS DC next fall.