We have two countries and individuals with a well established record of breaking treaties, agreements and promises who tell us they have established a relationship of trust. How reassuring! At least for the time being they have stopped threatening and that is a good thing but no clear definition emerged of exactly what is meant by denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. No doubt further talks will take place and the optimist in me says this gives hope but the pessimist says don’t start counting chickens. There are many traps and problems to be solved. While we don’t know what Kim is willing to offer nor do we know what he is willing to accept from the Americans and what they are willing to give.
The media focus in Australia and elsewhere his been rightly cautious but has tended to focus on what guarantees Kim can give the USA. While this is obviously important the real crunch is more likely to be what the USA can offer Kim that keeps him in office without too many concessions and gives him a bankable guarantee of security. This is the man who said that if Saddam Hussein had had nukes he would would still be there and Kim will not have forgotten this accurate assessment.
The most important issue is to agree on exactly what is involved in denuclearisation of the peninsula. Mechanisms exist to monitor the removal of nuclear capability in the DPRK although not to remove the technical capability to build new ones. The major problem is how the Americans can satisfy Kim. Trump has talked about pulling out troops from the South and that would be essential. But removing nukes from the ROK is worthless when nuclear armed warships can sail close to the DPRK not to mention the capability to fire missiles from US territory in Guam or the even the mainland. What guarantee will Kim accept from the country that pulled out of deals in Libya and Iran? It is also worth noting that there was an international agreement signed to protect Ukraine in its then existent borders as the price for giving up its nukes. When Russia took Crimea, contrary to the guarantee it had undertaken, the other signatories imposed sanctions on Russia but that is all and Crimea remains and will remain Russian. Nobody was willing to use force against Russia and who would use force against the USA in a similar situation? Guarantees from China and Russia might help but would Kim feel this was enough protection against the country that illegally deposed Saddam Hussein on the basis of bad intelligence? What does Kin want from his new best buddy?
A peace treaty would disband the UN Command and remove formal obligations from all the parties involved to come to the aid of the ROK if it were invaded. Japan would be less than enthusiastic about this and it might give the ROK cause for concern. Much would depend on where that fitted into a total package. Reunification of Korea is so complicated and so far down the track that it is something to be looked at when other problems have been solved. The danger for Kim is going to be, to paraphrase an old song, how is he going to keep his people down on the farm now that they’ve seen Seoul?
While there are probably Korean equivalents of John Bolton in Pyongyang Kim is likely to stay in control of his country but the same cannot be said for Trump. He is subject to elections and there are many influential people in the USA who do not approve of the deal. Remember also that Trump, like most of his countrymen, believes in American exceptionalism and its right to call the shots. Pressures to remove the brutal dictator and impose American ideas on human rights would be very strong in the US. We have already seen comment along those lines. Kim’s first priority is to stay in office and run things his way even if he does wish to make some economic changes. The Chinese and Vietnamese models are likely to be far more attractive than attempts to impose the American model.
These are just a few of the complications that will have to be faced. We can but hope and see what happens when the flurry of friendly rhetoric has died down. Both sides have at least agreed that much work remains to be done which is a positive approach.
Cavan Hogue was Alternate Delegate to UNCURK for two years, was the contact point for dealing with the DPRK when Australia had no formal relations and was involved in trade and political questions with Seoul as head of the Asia Division in DFAT.