Foreign Policy Blogs

Is North Korea Actually Disarming?

Is North Korea Actually Disarming?

The Summit

Not too long ago, President Trump was promising “fire and fury”, while Kim Jong-Un was assuring a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike”. On June 12, 2018 as cameras flashed and hands shook, both leaders significantly changed their tune with flattery and promises. The Singapore Summit was indeed a historic moment, with North Korea’s promises of denuclearization. However, this seemingly good cheer and cooperative attitude prompts the skeptic to consider what North Korea actually wants and what concessions they will actually make.

This is hardly the first time that North Korea has promised to disarm. In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but by 2003, the nation had withdrawn from their agreement. Since then, North Korea has flip flopped between agreeing to dismantle nuclear weapons, all the while continuing to test and develop nuclear weapons. Even with the recent treaty, it is necessary to look at why Kim Jong-Un signed the agreement in the first place.

Kim Jong-Un’s motive in light of recent negotiations is vital to explore. Typically, with two nations at odds with each other, when something appears too good to be true, it is. Kim Jong-Un’s propaganda over the years has shown missile launches and extreme nationalism. Threats leveraged at the U.S., even up until a few months ago do not indicate the actions of a man who will actually give up the leverage he has. It is natural to conclude that there is a reason for Kim Jong-Un’s seeming cooperation with denuclearization and it becomes important for the interests of national security understand why and how.

It’s Economics, Baby

China’s influence over North Korea has been striking and should not be overlooked. Indeed, it is almost a surprise that China came on board with the rest of the international community in imposing said sanctions. China has had relations with North Korea and maintained their support of stability within the Korean Peninsula. China has even gone as far as to promise to return any escapees who make it across the border back to North Korea. Additionally, there have been reports indicating that over 90% of North Korea’s food and energy supply come from China. China has been working both sides and it is interesting to say the least that they would begin applying pressure to North Korea now.

China’s recent display of economic hegemony and restricting trade of fuel and food vital to North Korea’s survival seems to have largely influenced North Korea’s recent compliance. Combined with condemnation from the international community, threats from the United States, and Kim Jong-Un’s own personal ego have also contributed to the talks with the U.S. and South Korea. Whether or not Kim Jong-Un will follow through on his end of the bargain, although doubtful, is yet to be determined. The agreement both parties signed only provided an outline of goals without a strategy of implementation.

Each player in this game has a clear stake. South Korea wants a united Korea and stability in the region. China wants power and probably nuclear weapons of their own. The United States wants North Korea to denuclearize. Lastly, North Korea wants a lift to the economic sanctions applied to the, and the power that comes with being a world player.

It is this last point that is striking. For a country that has been closed off to most of the world to now emerge and aim for peace is quite interesting. The timing is indicative of the result of economic pressure coming largely from China. Until recently, China seemed to turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crimes of North Korea. This past year, however, China has condemned the testing of nuclear weapons and applied sanctions. China’s massive influence should not be ignored.

Although the Kims have previously indicated that their regime’s survival is based on the development of nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-Un has wisely decided to take a separate approach through diplomatic measures. Yet even with the seemingly positive outcomes of the summit, sanctions will not be lifted until weapons are denuclearized.

The Humanitarian Factor

Under the best of circumstances, Kin Jong-Un will put into action his promise to denuclearize. Economic sanctions will be lifted and North Korea will continue importing gas and exporting coal. Jobs will increase in North Korea and the country may begin to prosper. Perhaps the hotel President Trump believes could be developed will come to fruition and the world will see an increase in tourism in the once restricted nation.

It would be so easy for the world to turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon Kim Jong-Un’s own people. President Trump has stated that economic sanctions will not be lifted until Chairman Kim denuclearizes. Should there also not be some written emphasis on the requirement for North Korea to end their humanitarian crimes? Gulags, reeducation camps, travel restrictions and intolerance of religious groups are just a few examples of oppression that the world knows takes place in North Korea. Just as striking is the mass brainwashing that has taken place. North Korea is a country without choice and without opportunities. Kim Jong-Un may not have established the system, but he has maintained it.

Kim Jong-Un became Supreme Leader of the “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea in 2011 upon the death of his father Kim Jong-Il. As such, he cannot plead ignorance to the crimes under his regime. With the county’s total control, nothing is done without Kim Jong-Un knowing about it. Surveillance, testimony from survivors and escapees, and credible intelligence all bear testament to these crimes.

It may not be in the immediate best interests of world leaders for Kim Jong Un to be held accountable for the crimes against his people. Despite promises and a signed document, Kim Jong-Un does not have any organization or person to enforce his part of the bargain. If it is the goal of the international community to see North Korea disarm, they will not begin to criticize how he rules his people. This does not mean that light should not be shed on the fact that the international community may be failing the interests of the people of North Korea. A way to start looking out for the interests of the people is to consider what the international community cando.

There is no easy method to address the human rights abuses in North Korea within the immediate future. If admittance is the first step to recovery, North Korea has a long way to go as the Kim Jong-Un dictatorship does not even recognize the human rights abuses taking place. China, again, may have the leverage to play a significant role in the humanitarian cause. Escapees from North Korea into China are known to be returned. China should consider these people as refugees rather than prisoners and find a way to provide asylum. International and human rights organizations could work with bordering countries like China and South Korea in order to provide the aid and resources necessary enable survivor’s recovery and prosperity.

The international community now has the opportunity to begin discussions on the human rights abuses that have taken place within North Korea. Part of the economic discussions should without a doubt include the shutting down of the concentrations camps within North Korea and allowing asylum to survivors. The process of reuniting blood relations between the two Koreas is also a necessary measure of good will that should be emphasized and not forgotten.

Now that North Korea has emerged promising peace and an effort for stability in the region, perhaps negotiations may begin surrounding humanitarian issues. It is not the sole duty of the United States to condemn the action of the North Korean regime, but the responsibility of the international community as a whole. The immediate concern is whether or not Kim Jong-Un will live up to his word and begin to denuclearize. Even if he does follow through on his promise, it will be a long while before Kim Jong-Un is recognized as a legitimate world player.



Jacqueline Schultz

Jacqueline Schultz is a graduate student at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in International Affairs, focusing on U.S. Foreign Policy. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Rollins College in International Relations with minors in Music and Middle Eastern & North African Studies. Jacqueline has previously worked in the private sector within the field of international education as well as the non-profit sector.