Herbert London: North Korea's 'Happy Talk' Nothing But Empty Words

May 2, 2018

"South Pacific” has made its way to the Korean Peninsula with a lot of “Happy Talk.”  

News accounts would have you believe the meeting of Kim Jong-Un and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In was a historic event aimed at denuclearization. In this highly choreographed event, Kim became the first leader of the North since the Korean War to set foot in the South. The two men shook hands as shutter bugs flashed photos. They acted like buddies in a scene belying the truth. Kim even signed the guest book noting: “A new history begins now — at the starting point of history and the era of peace.” Seoul officials reported that Kim told Moon he “won’t interrupt your early morning sleep anymore,” with nuclear tests.

However, it is time to introduce the constraints of reality. Despite the well-wishing, the notion the peace is at hand is delusional. Kim will provide verbiage soothing to the South Korean sensibilities, but it is hard to overlook the fact the North has a history devoted to the elimination of the South and the reunification of the peninsula. Moreover, empty aspirational goals have been mentioned in the past, but as Nicholas Eberstadt has noted, is merely “sucker bait.”

From a diplomatic standpoint, the North Korean effort at detente with the South is another way of forcing the American hand since the ally we are attempting to protect may be seduced by the enemy we are trying to persuade. Clearly, many in the South believe a new day has arrived and peace is just over the rainbow. It would appear that under these circumstances, North Korea has most of the leverage. Should Kim walk away from the meetings with the American delegation, there is likely to be more anger directed at President Trump than Kim.

For President Trump all the bravado may be of interest, but the ultimate goal of denuclearization cannot be overlooked period. A pull back from offensive positions by the North, a cessation of testing, a cooling down of war-like rhetoric are all important steps, but in the aggregate, they do not constitute the key decision.

If there is a complication, it is related to the meaning of denuclearization. While the term may seem clear as the irreversible elimination of the weapons with guaranteed verification, the North refers to the term as the denuclearization of the entire peninsula starting with the severing of South Korean ties to the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

And even with negotiations about nuclear weapons, there is a shadow of human rights violations of an egregious variety that aren’t on the table for discussion. North Korea is being treated as a nation within the family of nations and Kim is simply another world leader. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Murder is a way to secure power and starvation is a way to maintain internal control. The South Korean “sunshine” advocates often deny the past. In doing so, South Korea risks moving more quickly to strike a deal, which should be uncomfortable for the Trump administration reluctant to make concessions at the very outset of negotiations.

For utopians, the latest accounts yield a bountiful moment of blessings. So far, so fast and so remarkable are the echoes in many South Korean chambers. But reality has a way of intruding on utopians, of restoring clarity to rose colored glasses. In the case, it is best that the realists sit at the negotiating table with the knowledge of the past and skepticism about the future.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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