“What to do about North Korea?” has undoubtedly been the most agonizing question ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953. For more than 60 long years, peace in the Korean peninsula has seemed unattainable — largely due to the tension between the two nations stemming from their social, political, and economic differences.
But with the election of Moon Jae-in last year and a return to détente, some believe that permanent peace—and possibly even reunification—is imminent. Supporters of reunification are more optimistic than ever, citing the recent peace talks between the two nations as being a historical turning point.
Though recent events do seem to be supporting this opinion, it is reasonable to stay skeptical of the North Korean regime and its actions, given all that has happened in the past. After all, the road to peace between the two nations has never quite been so smooth.
Throughout the history of Inter-Korean relations, tensions waxed and waned. Immediately after the Korean War, there were high tensions that eventually spurred on the Korean DMZ Conflict, a string of minor border clashes between the two countries, but some peace was restored in the following years through the first Red Cross talks between high-ranking officials from both nations. This temporary peace did not last, however, and relations grew frosty again as North Korea bombed a South Korean plane in protest of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.
By the 1990s, tensions had thawed with the implementation of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, which aimed at restoring communication and economic relations between the two nations. This trend continued into the next decade, but the shadow of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s nuclear weapons development in the background constantly threatened to engulf the possibility of peace and prosperity.
Although Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye bear some responsibility for their careless handling of foreign policy regarding North Korea during this era, it is important to remember that the questionable behavior the North Korean leadership displayed was more decisive in worsening North Korea’s ties with other nations. Almost every time a foreign country displayed signs of generosity or conviction toward the regime, the Kim family would respond by betraying this trust. This type of deception happened often regarding nuclear testing, and once the North even admitted to going against the Agreed Framework it had signed in 1994 calling for the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program.
Time and time again, the international community chose to place trust in the North Korean government. And each time, the Kims responded by shattering these hopes. From broken promises of nuclear disarmament to the denial of allegations regarding North Korean attacks on South Korean civilians, it is astonishing how much optimism the South still has in the Kim regime. It is unquestionable that North Korea has been taking advantage of its neighbor under the guise of peace and reconciliation for the past decades, and it is high time we recognize their inability to keep promises.
Some may be curious as to how North Korea has been playing this game for so long, and the answer is simple. Through careful manipulation and cunning tactics, the Kim family blocked all traces of outside influence from swaying the North Korean people and retained their power. Kim Jong-un and his predecessors are also much more knowledgeable than the average person gives them credit for. By observing parallels to their situation, such as the incident in Libya, they have gained enormous insight into international affairs without even venturing outside of their country.
In 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi finally caved to the pressure made by Western powers and announced a plan to eliminate all nuclear arms by dismantling the country’s entire nuclear weapons program. Everything seemed to be moving along well for the next few years, with Libya attracting more investors from the US and Great Britain as an added benefit from the deal. But things took a dramatic turn in 2011, when Arab Spring struck Libya. In a surprise move, NATO intervened on behalf of rebel forces seeking to topple Gaddafi’s power, leading to Gaddafi’s eventual capture and execution.
Because Gaddafi had no bargaining power left after giving up his nuclear weapons, he was unable to dissuade NATO from taking the rebel militia’s side. As a result, the very powers that had pressured Gaddafi to give up Libya’s nuclear arsenal turned against him and contributed to his downfall. Thus, Kim Jong-un has learned a valuable lesson from Gaddafi’s failure: a nuclear arsenal is the only way deterrence against Western powers is secured, and there will be enormous consequences that come from surrendering one’s nuclear weapons program.
So what actions—if any at all—can be taken when history seems to be repeating itself? For now, the only thing left to do is to observe Kim Jong-un’s movements and analyze the reasoning behind his actions. He has surprisingly stayed cooperative during the past few weeks of negotiation, and his next possible appearance on the big stage is a summit with President Donald Trump in which denuclearization is the biggest focus for discussion.
But once again, let us not stay overly optimistic. The two Koreas have been in this position before. North Koreans marched hand-in-hand with South Koreans at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il engaged in fruitful discussion during the first inter-Korean summit. And once again, political analysts declared that it was only a matter of time before reunification was secured. Sound familiar? It seems as though the peninsula is back at square one.