The Cynicism of the Sophisticated: North Korea and Complete Irreversible Denuclearisation

Sophisticated foreign policy hands argue no way North Korea would agree to complete and irreversible denuclearisation. Left unsaid is what that means.

The train is moving fast on the Kim-Trump summit with developments of great significance occurring on an almost daily basis.

Today, hot on the heels of the fourth inter-Korean summit, we receive news that the United States has sent a negotiating team of highly knowledgeable and experienced diplomats to discuss further the logistics and modalities of the on-off-on summit meeting between North Korea and the United States.

I have written on the fourth inter-Korean summit already, arguing that the big ticket item for North Korea was the reaffirmation of the Panmunjom Declaration and the agreement to speed up its implementation.

North Korea, by all accounts, remains committed to its phased and reciprocal conception of denuclearisation. It appears that the high powered US delegation that is meeting in Pyongyang is seeking greater clarity on this, and perhaps some movement toward a softening of that stance prior to the summit occurring. That the summit would consist of a grand acceptance of complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament that would leave Trump triumphant was and remains fantastical.

That was a claim that was made often last week, and the whole kerfuffle over what North Korea means by denuclearisation revealed some interesting implicit premises well worth making explicit.

As far as I can see there are two reasons why one might conclude that North Korea will not engage in a process of complete, verifiable, irreversible, and immediate, we might add, denuclearisation. One is that North Korea is committed to its nuclear programme come hell or high water, as it always has been, and is skilfully dangling the carrot of denuclearisation to achieve diplomatic and economic concessions. The second is that the United States is an aggressive state possessing an impressive track record when it comes to employing the expeditionary use of military firepower for political ends. Because of this, it would be the height of irrationality for Pyongyang to disarm on Washington’s terms.

We heard often of John Bolton and the deal he and the other neoconservatives of the Bush administration made with Libya that led Gaddafi to halting his “weapons of mass destruction” programmes, including a rather amateurish nuclear one, only for him later to be killed, in brutal fashion, by rebel forces, crucially, enjoying the support of US airpower. Forgotten in the noise over Bolton was that Bolton and co may have made that deal, but it was Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton that broke it. The latter even boasted of it; “we came, we saw, he died” she laughingly said.

The interesting thing here is that many former national security and nuclear policy officials made that point, and members of the liberal arms control community close to them, without in the least bit being cognisant of the implicit assumption that lurks beneath. Namely, the United States has an impressive track record of external aggression, and of violating agreements when it suits, so why would North Korea be interested in complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation?

That assumption is implicit, never made explicit, because it leads to an unflattering view of Washington’s foreign policy, and an unflattering view of those who have developed and implemented it, both Republican and Democrat, over many years. The impression one gets from them is that the worst crime when it comes to foreign policy is to have an incoherent one without strategic focus, when, it could be argued, the real crime is having one that is based on the principle that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must a principle the former officials were especially wedded to, an objective reading of history would show.

There is something deeper still at work here. The United States is a relatively open and democratic society, perhaps the most open of all, so it’s citizens can in principle do something about the foreign policy that emanates from Washington. If the crux of the matter with North Korea, but also of global nuclear disarmament more broadly, is an asymmetric conventional force imbalance and mistrust because of the track record of US foreign policy then the citizens of the United States should take the power to make foreign policy away from the elites that did and do wield that policy.

A more democratic and pacific foreign policy made for, of and by the people would benefit all. It might even lead to denuclearisation, and not just in North Korea.

See if you can find any of those former officials, and those close to them in the liberal arms control community, make that point when they sagely, with the cynicism of the sophisticated, point out to us that North Korea could not possibly be interested in complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.