North Korean denucearlization poses greatest foreign policy challenge for Trump yet

On March 5th, the North Korean regime announced that they are willing to discuss letting go of their nuclear capabilities in exchange for an assurance of security. 

On Monday, the North began engaging the South through bilateral talks absent of American involvement; on Thursday evening, it was reported that Kim Jong Un had proposed total denuclearization. Pyongyang’s change of heart is unprecedented, as the prospect of denuclearization has never been put forward by the Kim regime.

International dialogue has been scarce since Pyongyang began testing their nuclear arsenal in 2006. The last major multilateral negotiations that included North Korean officials, known as the “six-party talks”, were held between 2003 and 2007. They excluded Canadian diplomats and ultimately failed to produce a roadmap for peace in the region.

This week, the world was given its first glimpse of hope since the failed six-party talks. The announcement comes after de-escalation talks between Canada and the leaders of 20 world powers in January. The summit, hosted in Vancouver, was the first in years dedicated to answering the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

In its aftermath, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proclaimed that a nuclearized North Korea had no place on the world stage. “A North Korea that commits to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program,” said Freeland, “will have a secure place in the international community.” It now appears that Pyongyang was listening.

Canada has seldom spoken with North Korean officials since 2010, when the Harper government severed formal diplomatic relations over North Korea’s alleged role in sinking a South Korean warship engaged in a training simulation in the East China Sea. In lieu of formal relations, Canada has maintained a Controlled Engagement Policy which has strictly limited contact between the two states to consular and humanitarian matters. Since then, diplomatic isolation has been North Korea’s dominant strategy. 

That changed this week, when the Kim regime ceded their former stance by proposing new measures to South Korean representatives. In sum: no nukes, no missile tests, and no military exercises—on either side of the Korean border. In other words, a partial dissolution of the US-South Korean military alliance. 

The significance of this exchange should not be understated. The proposition of amicable talks, without hostile rhetoric or ballistic showmanship, marks a major turning point for two countries that have been officially at war since 1950.  For the first time, the Kim regime has signalled that they have no need for nuclear weapons should their security be assured.

But how secure are “security assurances”? Ask Ukraine, who in 1994 agreed to destroy their stockpile of 1,700 nuclear warheads and join the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). John Mearsheimer, a “realist” scholar in the field of international relations theory, predicted that Ukraine’s sacrifice would lead to future aggression from Russia.

Mearsheimer’s predictions have begun to materialize, as a toothless Ukraine has lost the territory of the Crimean peninsula to Russian annexation. Consequently, the Ukrainian military has had to relinquish their Black Sea Fleet to the Russian Navy.

Since 2014, full-scale war has ensued between government forces and Kremlin-backed rebel groups near Ukraine’s eastern border. In January, the Ukrainian parliament officially recognized Russia as an “aggressor” state, and declared the Ukrainian regions of Luhasnk and Donetsk as “occupied” by Russian forces.

When confronted with the threat of asymmetrical warfare, the lesser state relies on nuclear weapons to deter the aggression of the larger. Without a deterrent, then, how can the Kim regime feel secure against the threat of American intervention?   

A freeze-for-freeze is a game played not with dollars but with trust, a currency that President Trump is woefully short on. In a “freeze-for-freeze” situation, the US and her allies will have to guarantee to stay out of the Korean peninsula, and out of its surrounding waters; any failure to make good on this promise will be tantamount to the South’s “nuclearization” in the eyes of the North.   

The Obama administration denied olive branches from the North Koreans, instead employing a doctrine of “strategic patience”. His administration was hesitant to buy into propositions from a regime known for their duplicity throughout previous de-escalation efforts during the Clinton and Bush eras.

The cynical view, surely not lost on the Trump administration, is that Kim’s offer is a routine gesture, offered every few years when his regime is in need of aid. However, if President Trump decides to abandon the cynical approach he will be faced with his most improbable challenge yet: gaining the world’s trust not to intervene. 

North Korean denucearlization poses greatest foreign policy challenge for Trump yet

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