Moments after President Donald Trump shook North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s hand for the first time, Trump pronounced: “We will have a terrific relationship.”
Trump’s snap judgment fulfilled his prediction before the June 12 summit that he would be able to evaluate Kim’s intentions “within the first minute” of meeting him.
High-level politicians often think that they are experts at reading and influencing other leaders. They quickly come to believe that they are the world’s leading authority on any counterpart they meet in person. For example, President George W. Bush was so enamored with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that senior advisers launched a concerted campaign to curb his enthusiasm.
“You’re my man,” Bush would say to Maliki. When advisers told the president he was undercutting U.S. efforts to pressure Maliki, Bush responded with incredulity: “Are you saying I’m the problem?”
If Trump follows this pattern I’ve found when studying the personal side of foreign policy, he may believe that he now has special insight into Kim. And that means the dynamics of U.S. policymaking toward North Korea have changed. Having met Kim, the president will be even less likely to listen to experts in the intelligence and diplomatic communities.
From first impressions to agreement
Hours after Trump and Kim first met, the two leaders emerged from their talks to sign a joint document. The U.S. is prepared to guarantee the regime’s security, and North Korea is willing to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” according to the statement. Trump called it a “very comprehensive agreement.”
Critics are charging that the letter was closer to North Korea’s preferences than the “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible de-nuclearization” sought by the United States.
Perhaps the document is underwhelming, repeating North Korean promises of the past without any clear road map to making them reality. But something significant changed in Singapore: President Trump has met Kim face to face.
On the eve of the summit, details emerged of a profile of Kim’s personality, provided to the president by allied intelligence agencies.
This is standard practice prior to meetings with foreign leaders. But once the leaders have met in person, intelligence analysis takes second place to first-hand impressions.
In the future, expert counsel on Kim’s intentions may clash with Trump’s positive perception of the North Korean leader. In the post-summit press conference Trump called Kim “very talented.” He told journalist Greta van Susteren that Kim has “a great personality, he’s a funny guy, he’s very smart. He loves his people.”
From now on, analyses from the diplomatic and intelligence communities that fit Trump’s view of Kim will be favored, those at odds with his view may be dismissed.
This dynamic is common in policymaking, and there are reasons to think it could be extremely consequential in this case.
Relying on ‘touch, feel’
First, Trump’s tendency to trust his instincts is already pronounced. Asked by a reporter before the summit how he would know if Kim was serious about de-nuclearization, Trump said he would rely upon “my touch, my feel. It’s what I do.”
Second, the intricate series of steps toward disarmament of a nuclear arsenal require expert verification. Ostensibly cooperative actions – like destroying nuclear test tunnels – might turn out to be empty gestures once analysts have pored over the surveillance footage. The North Korean regime has a history of making public agreements, then advancing their nuclear arsenal in secret.
This summit process began with a snap decision by Trump to accept an offer to meet with Kim. The most significant result may be Trump’s new confidence that he uniquely understands the North Korean leader. This will further reinforce the defining dynamic of Trump’s presidency so far: Ignore the experts, trust your gut.
At first glance, it is easy to call the meeting between US president, Donald Trump, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, “historic” and “unprecedented”. It was the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries, which are still technically in a state of war.
You could also call it a success – preparations and schedules were respected, the media had ample opportunity to take shots of the two men shaking hands in front of the colourful display of 12 intermingled American and North Korean flags – and they were also privy to comments by the two leaders, including Kim in one of his very rare appearances in front of the foreign press.
The meeting was also a success from a security and optics points of view: smiles were exchanged, in-depth discussions took place between cabinet members, nobody went off script and there were no security breaches, thanks to ironclad preparations by their Singaporean hosts.
Now that both leaders are on their way back to their own countries, we are left with many photos of the bromance du jour, as well as a signed statement – and a plethora of questions. What should we take away from this historic moment? Here are three key points:
1. Ultimately it was North Korea’s day
Kim has managed to build upon the work of his father and grandfather and secured the highest form of recognition that there is – a bilateral meeting with the president of the most powerful country on the planet.
And North Korea did not have to pay a cent for it: China furnished a plane, Singapore footed the US$15m-plus bill for the summit, and the media distributed images of the North Korean leader parlaying on equal terms with the US president to the entire world. It’s a resounding success for Kim – and one that is likely to be exploited back home for political purpose.
2. What is written in the agreement
The joint document signed by both parties shows the craftiness and hardline approach the DPRK has taken to the summit. Though the agreement commits both parties to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – removing all nuclear weapons from the region, including potential American weapons – the DPRK has only reiterated, in writing, its commitment to “work towards” this aim.
This is certainly not the pledge for the unilateral dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme that the US has always pushed for.
3. What is not written in the agreement
The agreement shows a clear miss from the United States, as there are no mentions of CVID (“complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”) of North Korean nuclear capabilities – something that was talked about a great deal in the run up to the meeting.
Given that Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton, have signalled that they would accept nothing short of CVID, this is a giant omission. Essentially, this should be read as a refusal from the DPRK to state that they would denuclearise unilaterally.
4. Putting words into action
The agreement provides very vague concepts for a new US-DPRK relationship – one that will without a doubt also change the nature of balance and geopolitics in East Asia and relationships with other regional actors such as South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
The first concrete action was for the American president to announce he intends to call a halt to the annual war game exercises organised between the US and South Korea (the most recent exercises nearly derailed the inter-Korea summit a few weeks ago). This is an important step toward confidence building for both sides of the summit and one that should be praised.
But it is important to note that Trump’s rationale was to scrap the war games, not because they offend and worry the DPRK – but, as he himself stated to the media, because they cost a lot of money. And money – especially the way Trump thinks the rest of the world takes advantage of the US – was a theme the US president returned to repeatedly in the post-summit press conference.
Trump also talked about real estate development opportunities in the DPRK. In essence, Trump’s money-focused transactional nature took only a few hours to surface after his handshake with Kim. But peace has a cost and, given the current US narrative that seeks to avoid foreign entanglement and is fed up with spending money on international commitments, it will require the United States to manage its shaky alliances if this is to be a realistic prospect.
And as reactions are starting to pour in from world leaders, it is important to remember that the summit has given the DPRK legitimacy on the world stage, while there was little talk of how this legitimacy was acquired: essentially by developing nuclear weapons.
Kim is a dictator who has purged a number of rivals while starving and oppressing his own population. Ultimately, Trump has just willingly sat down with a villain and not gained much in the way of concessions in return.
In my preview of the historic US-DPRK summit in Singapore, I asked where Trump and Kim might find lowest common denominator points of agreement to potentially unlock a confidence-building pathway.
That this summit has even taken place at all could be seen as an achievement, given where US-DPRK relations were in 2017. We should therefore be unsurprised that despite Trump’s hype in the lead-up to the event, the common denominators of agreement amounted to promises of a new relationship and little else of substance.
However, it is not so much what is in the joint statement as much as what has been left out that is the big story.
To tease this out, let’s consider the four specific points of agreement articulated in the joint statement released by US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un at the conclusion of today’s summit.
In the first article of the agreement, the two parties committed to establishing a “new US-DPRK relations.” What might a new relationship between the two countries look like?
The leader-to-leader summit between the two countries was unprecedented and potentially could represent a tentative first step on the road to rapprochement. Symbolism is the obvious place to begin, given the low base the relationship between these two countries is starting from.
If we jump to article four, both parties have committed to the process of recovering the remains of UN forces prisoners of war and soldiers missing-in-action from the Korean War, along with the immediate repatriation of the remains of those already identified.
In a similar way to the family reunion program articulated in the inter-Korean Panmunjom Agreement, the repatriation of POW/MIA remains is a relatively easy confidence-building measure on which to base a longer-term pathway of more substantive measures. It is also of great importance as a mark of respect to the families of those military personnel who can find closure with the return of their deceased loved ones.
The second article refers to joint efforts “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” As I’ve argued previously, a settlement to formally conclude the Korean War could be potential common interest around which to develop an engagement pathway.
Prior to the summit, Trump hinted that the “signing of a document” to close hostilities was a possibility. The closest the joint statement comes to this is a passage in the second paragraph, which reads:
President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK.
It is not immediately clear from the text what these security guarantees might be, but it certainly falls short of any kind of non-aggression pact or peace treaty. Such an outcome was always unlikely at this summit and would be the product of a longer negotiating process should it come to pass.
The end of ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation’?
The joint statement gets interesting in article three, in which “the DPRK commits to work toward the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
The wording around “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” reflects the North Korean interpretation of the concept, which has been well-documented in the lead-up to the summit.
Tellingly, there is no mention of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID) in the statement text, which is a clear departure from long-standing US policy.
There are a couple of ways this could be interpreted. On the one hand, it is possible that Trump lived up to the pre-summit fears of some domestic critics and gave away too much for too little in the negotiation. From this perspective, the master negotiator Trump was played by Kim into signing off on the North Korean position, through which Kim gets international legitimacy and domestic prestige from attending the summit without having to make any concessions.
On the other hand, Trump’s omission of CVID could be a calibrated strategy accompanied by a clearly articulated and wide-ranging engagement strategy, scaffolded around a formal peace treaty. If so, it could prove to be the circuit-breaker that opens the pathway toward the aforementioned “new US-DPRK relations” and the collective management of North Korea as a nuclear power.
Either way, this will become clearer if and when follow-up negotiations take place. Either way, there are factions of the international political spectrum who will be unhappy with the outcome.
It is significant that article three pays homage to the Panmunjom Agreement, which may be the key to understanding how the US-South Korea-DPRK engagement triangle may unfold.
The Panmunjom Agreement, for all its ambiguity, does have an articulation of economic and security confidence-building measures, based on a shared vision for a permanent Korean Peninsula peace regime.
If we assume a calibrated strategy in deferring to the Panmunjom Agreement, the US-DPRK joint statement may indicate the bulk of the heavy lifting with regard to confidence-building measures will be handled as an inter-Korean affair, with Trump’s apparent non-aggression promise providing space for engagement initiatives to evolve.
Where to now?
My take-home message from the omission of CVID from the joint statement is confirmation that North Korea under Kim Jong-un is never going to willingly denuclearise.
In “working toward complete denuclearisation,” North Korea may agree to a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing moratorium, decommission obsolete nuclear facilities, or even promise to freeze production of new nuclear weapons, without ever having to compromise its nuclear weapons capability.
We should not be surprised if one or both parties back-pedals from the joint statement at some stage. Seasoned North Korea watchers will be expecting North Korea to backtrack from the joint statement to extract concessions, or add new conditions to their continued commitment to the “new US-DPRK relations,” as we have seen several times previously.
We are also likely to see Trump sustain considerable political heat domestically for his perceived capitulation on CVID and for omitting human rights from the discussion, as well as from the Japanese government for selling out their security interests.
This pressure may be sufficient to prompt a recalibration of the US interpretation of the joint statement. Backpedalling from either side will change the position of the other and blow the whole engagement process out of the water.
The final paragraph of the joint statement commits US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with an as yet unidentified high level North Korean official. It will be at these meetings and beyond where the “new US-DPRK relations” will start to take shape.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un will meet on Tuesday for their highly anticipated summit in Singapore. For the summit to be productive, the negotiations need to converge on a lowest-common-denominator shared interest that both parties can agree on.
We saw this in the inter-Korean summit, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un settled on easy-win confidence-building measures as the starting point for more substantive negotiations.
Given the extreme and long-standing trust deficit between the US and DPRK, it is not clear where Trump and Kim might find this lowest common denominator to unlock a confidence-building pathway. Because of that, this summit is shaping as compelling viewing as a spectacle, and perplexing in its ambiguous purpose.
What do they have to offer each other?
North Korea is not committed to denuclearisation as the concept has been understood by the Trump administration. The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea implies the full simultaneous nuclear weapons relinquishment by all nuclear powers, including the United States.
The problem with Trump’s insistence on CVID is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point for a discussion with North Korea on those terms. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program, because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway, and domestic political legitimacy.
The only real concession of value that Washington has to offer Kim is a formal treaty to conclude the Korean War. Indeed, Trump has hinted that the “signing of a document” to close hostilities is a possibility (though he stopped short of offering a formal peace treaty).
What does North Korea have to offer the United States, short of denuclearisation? We have seen gestures of goodwill in the lead-up to the summit. North Korea’s recently demolished tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site are a gesture of goodwill to Washington, offering up a now-obsolete facility.
This echoes a similar concession by Pyongyang in 2008, when it demolished the cooling tower of the obsolete reactor at Yongbyon. Negotiations may settle on a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to other smaller security-related confidence-building measures.
The North released three American citizens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a recent visit to Pyongyang. The Americans had been detained in the DPRK on accusations of espionage.
Both parties have strengths and weaknesses in their bargaining positions. North Korea has (or is close enough to) a deployable nuclear weapons capability. Kim appears enthusiastic to talk now with the Americans, because in nuclear weapons his government has the strategic leverage it needs. North Korea wants to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States, but on Pyongyang’s terms.
The explicit inclusion of references to transportation infrastructure linkages with South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration from April’s inter-Korean summit illustrates this point.
Similarly, there are limitations on American action that constrain its negotiating options – most notably, the strategic vulnerability of Seoul to North Korean bombardment.
The absence of a substantive relationship between the US and North Korea also limits Washington’s economic and diplomatic leverage. Rightly or wrongly, the US has dealt itself out of direct influence over North Korea through its various policies of strategic isolation and maximum pressure. It is ironic that US officials have consistently urged China to do more to pressure North Korea and uphold the integrity of the sanctions regime, when it has been economic interactions between the DPRK and China that have had the most demonstrable impact on politics in Pyongyang.
However, the clear power disparity between the US and DPRK is often overlooked. As the more powerful party with overwhelming nuclear superiority and clear capacity to deter any North Korean nuclear threat, the US does have capacity to reset the terms of the relationship by reducing the heat in negotiations.
Trump can do this by changing the focus of the negotiations. If it insists on CVID to the bitter end, the Trump administration will blow an opportunity to meaningfully change the strategic goalposts on the Korean Peninsula by focusing on the wrong prize.
Who else is playing a role?
With such ambiguity over potential outcomes from the summit, other regional players are lobbying hard around the edges to represent their interests.
South Korea’s diplomatic efforts in 2018 have been geared to guiding the US into a more conciliatory position with North Korea. This would make it politically safer for Trump to negotiate for an agreement with Pyongyang, knowing there are influential American officials in Trump’s ear counselling for war.
Moon Jae-in has been busy maintaining the diplomatic momentum generated by the inter-Korean summit, from his tactical ego-stroking comments about Trump deserving the Nobel Peace Prize to visiting Washington to lobby the president directly.
Moon has even flagged that he may travel to Singapore for the summit, knowing South Korea is best positioned to facilitate confidence-building with the DPRK.
Conversely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been engaging in shuttle diplomacy, urging Trump to follow a tougher line. North Korea’s WMD and missile threat to Japan, and resolution of the abductee issue, are core interests of the Abe administration.
Indeed, an adversarial North Korea better suits Abe’s domestic agenda for Japanese strategic “normalisation”, which would be undercut by rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.
It is also interesting to see that former NBA star Dennis Rodman may be an attendee at the summit. While Rodman has been lampooned in some quarters for his sports diplomacy and relationship with Kim Jong-un, he nonetheless has a level of access to and a unique rapport with the North Korean leader that is largely unmatched by anyone else within the American foreign policy establishment.
Also significant is the non-invitation of US National Security Advisor John Bolton. His recent comments comparing North Korea to Libya appear to be a deliberate attempt to undercut the State Department’s groundwork with Pyongyang over the past few months.
American hawks such as Bolton view any kind of engagement with North Korea as a “loss” or “appeasement” — one of the most juvenile and misapplied terms in the international relations lexicon.
They are well aware of the difficulty of getting any negotiated deal ratified in a Republican-majority Congress (recalling the fate of the Agreed Framework). The irony is a deal is more likely to stick in the US if it is owned by a Republican president.
What could this summit achieve?
My view is that North Korea can be deterred as a nuclear power, and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War represents the best pathway to managing regional security and ensuring the safety of the people who live in the region.
It is under the umbrella of a formalised peace regime that human rights concerns within North Korea are more likely to be addressed, coupled with continued pressure from international human rights advocates.
Summits are symbols that act as markers in a much broader process of relationship-building. They are based on confidence-building measures and clear, achievable implementation steps. Through such a process, the parties could gradually evolve the level of trust necessary to progress to subsequent steps on the negotiation pathway.
It is unclear in the build-up to this unprecedented summit if the participants will be able to hack away the thicket of decades of mistrust and hostility to identify common interests.
We will find out on Tuesday if Trump and Kim can find that lowest common denominator on which to build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Ten days ago, the international community was facing an existential crisis: US President Donald Trump may be a credible nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump’s unconventional tactics appeared to have led to a legitimate thawing of relations with the reclusive and dogmatic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The planned summit on June 12 in Singapore was considered a potential path to ending the long-running Korean conflict, which time and again has threatened to make nuclear war a reality.
Now, less than a fortnight later, the talks are off – for now – although a second summit on Saturday between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could pave the way for their reinstatement. The reality is that the way forward for the Korean dispute could not be murkier, although Trump is now suggesting June 12 will go ahead as planned.
So the questions remain: what happened? and where to from here?
The derailing process – White House musical chairs
Trump instinctively likes strong-man leaders in the style of Kim. He likes to think he can talk to these sorts of leaders “man-to-man”, sorting complex issues out with business-style tactics. Until recently, these seemed to be working in North Korea, leading to the recent inter-Korean meeting at the Demilitarised Zone border, and the promise of the summit with the US.
In particular, bringing in John Bolton as the National Security Advisor and involving him in the Korean summit was a clear strategic error by the Trump team with far-reaching consequences. Bolton is not a new face for the North Koreans. They know him well and he has a long and chequered history with the regime, which it is in no hurry to forget.
When George W Bush took office in 2001, Bolton was a key figure in scuttling the Bill Clinton-led deal that was in the works in late 2000/early 2001. Not long after this, North Korea appeared in Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” speech, and the stage was set for confrontation. Bolton’s involvement has not been an effective way to build rapport prior to the June 12 summit.
Pence, Bolton and the Kim regime
About a week ago, murmurs emerging from North Korean circles indicated Kim Jong-Un was shying away from committing fully to the June 12 summit. The return of Bolton, and the interjection of Vice President Mike Pence to the issue, had led to a return to the aggressive rhetoric we had come to expect from the North Korean regime.
The likely key turning point for Kim Jong-un was the comparison with the Libyan example from 2003 by both Bolton and Pence. In 2003, then-leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to give up all weapons in return for the lifting of sanctions.
While the west may remember this as a successful denuclearisation process, undoubtedly what Kim Jong-Un clearly recalls is the deposing and killing of Gaddafi less than a decade later in 2011. Many dictatorial leaders, including Kim Jong-Un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have reiterated that the image of Gaddafi being dragged behind a car through Tripoli haunts them and influences their decisions to this day.
For Kim Jong-un, the experience of Libya has always been a warning sign to never give up your nuclear arsenal. Gaddafi was deposed and killed just as Kim Jong-un assumed the leadership following his father’s death in late 2010. The experience of Libya is a key lesson in why North Korea pursued nuclear weapons so aggressively under his watch. To bring this up in the lead-up to the summit as an example that may be replicated would have immediately put the North Korean leadership on high alert.
Trump’s response – From engagement to ego protection
One reason Trump likely to have pulled the pin is to save face. His Art of the Deal co-author Tony Schwartz commented:
Trump has a morbid fear of being humiliated and shamed. This is showing who’s the biggest and the strongest, so he is exquisitely sensitive to the possibility that he would end up looking weak and small. There is nothing more unacceptable to Trump than that.
In Trump’s mind, it is better to jump first than have the Koreans pull the rug out from underneath him.
The potential diplomatic damage from the public abandonment of the summit is immense. In particular, the sudden announcement of the US’s withdrawal from the summit blindsided key allies, especially South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon has staked his reputation on solving the Korean conflict, and members of his administration have been on record in the days leading up to the withdrawal stating that the chance of the summit happening was 99.9%.
We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.
China and North Korea – back on the same page?
The plans for the summit, and the associated thawing of relations with South Korea, also contributed to the warming of the recently frosty relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. Kim’s first overseas trip since taking on the leadership was a recent visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping.
Historically an ally of North Korea, China has been a key factor in bringing Kim Jong-un to the table by actually committing to enforce the international sanctions on North Korea. The recent meetings between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping may mean China becomes less willing to continue with actively enforcing the sanctions.
Trump suspected China was already weakening its stance. Tweeting out shortly before news of the cancellation of the June summit broke, Trump accused China of weakening the measures that brought North Korea to the table.
Trump publicly urged the Chinese regime to be “strong & tight” on sanctions. What China decides to do next will in large part determine whether there remains any credible chance of peace on the Korean peninsula.
There seem to be constant leaks trickling out of a White House seemingly incapable of maintaining confidentiality. In essence, the US policy on North Korea under Trump remains a moving target. In a statement to reporters on Friday, Trump said “everybody plays games”, then soon after tweeted “very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea”.
So there now appears hope that the Singapore summit may still take place. On Saturday, Moon and Kim met for the second time at the border truce village in the DMZ.
Moon presumably used the meeting to get the plans for the summit back on track. The unknown element is the price of the inconsistency in Trump’s approach. In the case of North Korea, playing “games” while risking genuine efforts to seek denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula may come at an exceedingly high cost.
In the wake of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting yesterday with US President Donald Trump, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable role he’s played in facilitating the opening for diplomacy that’s emerged this year between the US and North Korea.
It was a difficult environment for Moon to step into as the new leader of South Korea eager to pursue an agenda of rapprochement with the North. Yet Moon’s government has been able to craft a distinctive approach to engagement with an unpredictable leader like Kim and an American president who is equally erratic and deeply uncertain about his approach to North Korea policy.
Moon has made great strides in recent months, though we will have to hold judgement on the success of his approach until after Korea’s season of summits plays out.
A history of progressive politics
Moon Jae-in came from humble beginnings, born to a poor family who had fled the North during the Korean War. As a student at Kyung Hee University during the 1970s, he was involved in the emerging pro-democracy movement against the dictator Park Chung-hee. He also took part in Operation Paul Bunyan during his compulsory military service, the retaliatory operation to the infamous 1976 killings of two US Army officers by North Korean soldiers (known as the “axe murder incident”).
Moon eventually graduated from university and passed the bar exam in 1982, but was unable to advance in the judiciary due to his pro-democracy activist history. Through the 1980s, Moon partnered in a law firm with future South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, specialising in human rights cases.
Moon’s relationship with Roh would later lead him into politics. He was an official in Roh’s presidential administration, during which time he oversaw the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea in 2004 and was involved in organising the 2007 inter-Korean summit.
Moon made the jump from government official to elected representative in 2012, when he was elected to the South Korean National Assembly. He later launched an unsuccessful campaign for president against Park Geun-hye.
He went on to comfortably win the May 2017 presidential election, pledging to revive the engagement strategies of the Sunshine Policy era and seek better ties with the North.
A pivotal actor
Moon has advocated for a firm but patient strategy in engaging with North Korea. In his inaugural address as president, he expressed a willingness to:
go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula. If necessary, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and under the right circumstances go to Pyongyang, as well. I will do whatever I can to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
His enthusiasm for a more activist approach toward the North contrasted with the freeze in inter-Korean relations that had developed during the more conservative reciprocity-based strategy favoured by presidents Park and Lee Myung-bak.
The strategy is aimed at buttressing regional security through economic and infrastructure linkages, or “nine bridges” between South Korea and Russia in the form of gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the co-development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of the New Northern Policy emerged in Article 1.6 of the Panmunjom Declaration from the recent inter-Korean summit, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ between North and South Korea. These kinds of economic incentives may be highly attractive for North Korea as it pursues its Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development).
Despite taking a firm line on sanctions against North Korea following Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, the Moon administration capitalised on the auspiciously timed Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to open a new line of communication with the North Koreans. This bought much-needed time for diplomacy as tensions between the US and North Korea were reaching a boiling point.
By accident or design, the Moon-Kim summit last month and proposed Trump-Kim summit scheduled for next month have opened a window of opportunity to move away from the status quo toward a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
While Trump and Kim will inevitably grab all the headlines, Moon has been a pivotal actor in this drama. His activism in engaging the North has helped to make it politically safer for the Trump administration to negotiate with Kim, a prospect that was unthinkable only months ago.
There has been much media conjecture over what exactly the two parties have agreed to at the Panmunjom summit. It is therefore worth examining the declaration article-by-article to ascertain what is and isn’t on the table.
The Panmunjom Agreement is built around three core articles that identify points of agreement between the two parties, address potential local-level security flashpoints, and call for the negotiation of a treaty to formally conclude the Korean War.
Much of what has been agreed to here is not new, having been restated from previous inter-Korean agreements. However, in the context of the heightened tension that has surround the Korean Peninsula over the past year, this material takes on fresh meaning.
Identifying points of agreement
The clauses of Article 1 build on existing points of agreement between South Korea and the DPRK that were established during the Sunshine Policy period of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies.
In calling on both sides to implement existing inter-Korean agreements, Article I attempts to marshal the authority of the previous agreements as the foundation to legitimise this declaration.
Articles 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 call for continued South-North dialogue and the establishment of a joint liaison office in Gaeseong: a quasi-embassy to more smoothly facilitate those interactions than is currently possible.
With the diplomatic success of the joint Korean team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in mind, the declaration calls for another joint Korean team at the upcoming Asian Games.
Article 1.5 calls for the restarting of the family reunion program to reunite family members separated by the Korean War. Family reunions have been a staple confidence-building measures between the two parties, as reunions satisfy a genuine need for the affected families, are good PR and relatively easy to facilitate.
Most intriguingly, Article 1.6 mentions potential work on railway and road corridors across the demilitarised zone (DMZ). This would link not only North and South Korea but also China via the western transportation route from Seoul to Gaeseong and north to Sinuiju, at the Yalu River crossing point.
Establishing infrastructure connections between China and South Korea, through the DPRK, has been a long-held objective dating back to the Tumen River development zone of the early 1990s.
Dampen the security pressure points
Article 2 of the Panmunjom Declaration signals possible security-related confidence-building measures on issues of ongoing irritation between the two. These are lowest-common-denominator actions that both sides can agree to, and signal a greater commitment to cooperation.
While they are easy-win measures, they also address friction points in the day-to-day management of the demarcation line. Preventing local-level flashpoints is particularly important given the pressurised security environment of the past year, when military confrontation looked like a real possibility.
The cessation of “hostile acts against each other” around and across the demarcation line articulated in Article 2.1 does not mean there will be any demobilisation of military forces on either side. Rather, that pinprick provocations such as propaganda battles by loudspeaker across the DMZ and the floating of leaflets into DPRK territory by balloon will cease. These are easy measures for each side to agree to without compromising their security posture.
Article 2.2 revisits the concept of a maritime peace zone in the West Sea around the Northern Limit Line, flagged previously in the October 2007 joint declaration.
The two most serious flashpoints of actual military engagement over the past decade— the sinking of the South’s naval corvette Cheonan, and the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — have occurred in this contested maritime space. If the two Koreas were to stumble into a shooting war by accident, this would be the likely flashpoint.
Article 2.3 calls for military-to-military level engagement. This could potentially keep future flashpoint situations in check, although agreement to talk doesn’t signal much more than a discussion at this front end of the confidence-building process.
A permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula
Stating a commitment to a permanent peace treaty to end the Korean War is a feature of previous inter-Korean summit declarations. But in this case, the call has added impetus, as a peace treaty might be the only way forward in an expanded round of engagement that included the United States.
If North Korea refused to relinquish its nuclear weapons, and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise, there is no other goal toward which negotiations between the three parties could focus.
In Article 3.1, the two Koreas have reaffirmed their non-aggression pact from the 1992 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation. While the non-aggression clause has been standard fare in joint declarations since that time, this clause has added resonance in the context of the threats of war emanating from the Trump administration over the past year.
Article 3.2 discusses phased disarmament. However, this relates to conventional forces mobilised against each other, and not to nuclear weapons, with the added caveat that other confidence-building measures have been implemented and that “military tensions” (read “the US threat”) have been alleviated.
Like most of the clauses in the Panmunjom Declaration, the veiled reference to the United States in this article is a good example of the negotiated compromise and coded language of the final text.
Article 3.3 talks to the larger great power context by calling for the participation of the original signatories of the Korean War armistice in negotiating a peace treaty. That objective is complicated by the Republic of Korea not being a signatory to the armistice agreement.
The South was represented by the United States in those negotiations, which acted on behalf of the United Nations forces. South Korea will need to be included as a sovereign signatory to a formal treaty to end the Korean War.
Most media attention has focused on Article 3.4, which calls for “complete denuclearisation” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”. This is in addition to the call in Article 1.1 for both parties to work together on implementing the 2005 Joint Statement on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the 13 February Agreement of 2007.
However, this clause does not mean North Korea has committed to denuclearisation as that concept is understood by the Trump administration (CVID, or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation”). The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea includes the full nuclear weapons relinquishment of the United States as well – something that is obviously not going to fly in Washington.
In stating that “South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea [my emphasis] are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” this article looks more like a statement of goodwill to Washington with an eye toward the upcoming US-DPRK summit than a substantive commitment.
It will be interesting to see if Moon Jae-in accepts the invitation in the conclusion of the declaration to visit Pyongyang later in the year. That will depend on the outcome of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
There is little evidence in the Panmunjom Declaration that the South Koreans have attempted to test the waters for an aggressive American negotiating agenda at the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. There was no statement on specifics like a nuclear weapons freeze or missile testing moratorium. Instead, there seems to be more evidence here of an attempt to firewall the Korean Peninsula against an overly aggressive Trump gambit.
A US-DPRK summit based solely around the US-CVID agenda is doomed for failure, as there are no points of convergence between Washington and Pyongyang. A negotiating agenda that includes a pathway to a formal treaty to end the Korean War has a more realistic chance of progress.
Either way, with the inter-Korean summit concluded, it feels like we are at half time of a hotly contested, high-stakes game of summits in which the second half action is only going to get hotter.
This week’s high-stakes summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un heralds a new period of negotiations in which regional states attempt to manage a northeast Asian security environment that includes a nuclear North Korea.
Several analysts, myself included, have long postulated that a primary objective of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development was to enter a new phase of security negotiations with the United States from a position of increased strength.
Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in a fresh round of summits with Seoul and Washington is a good indicator that it has completed the technical development of its nuclear weapons capability and has a nuclear deterrent ready (or nearly ready) to deploy.
Official statements coming out of Pyongyang indicate as much. In a statement on April 20, reported by Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong-un said North Korea will “discontinue nuclear testing and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire” as “technology for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets has been reliably realised”.
The completion of its nuclear development gambit has implications for the timing and direction of North Korea’s summits with South Korea and the United States.
Concessions and confidence-building
With denuclearisation in the rear-view mirror, could we see a pathway toward a treaty to formally end the Korean War? That would seem to be an objective for North Korea, but remains a long way off. It would require a long period of mutual confidence-building to establish the trust necessary to make a treaty possible.
So, what of substance is North Korea willing to concede? Kim’s statement on a nuclear and missile test moratorium, and closing the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, is the most prominent concession made yet.
However, we should be clear that this does not mean North Korea has any interest in denuclearising. Punggye-ri is a superfluous asset if testing is no longer required for technical analysis. The site is also reported to be no longer fit for purpose, having been geologically destabilised by six nuclear tests.
The North will continue to produce fissile material. The oft-cited US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment released last year estimates a stockpile of fissile material sufficient for 40-60 nuclear warheads, increasing at a rate of about 12 warheads per year at current estimated rates of production.
North Korea also has a history of circumventing commitments agreed to in the past. This includes its development of a highly enriched uranium program in contravention of the Agreed Framework in the late 1990s, its violation in July 2006 of the 1999 missile testing moratorium, and its 2008 abandonment of the Six-Party Talks.
Information is the key to international co-operation, reducing the uncertainty that countries have about each other’s actions. It remains unclear what North Korea can offer to assuage American scepticism that it will honour a deal.
On the other side of the table, what is the negotiating goal for the United States? Some analysts worry Trump may be entering negotiations with unrealistic expectations of a denuclearisation deal. There is a fear he will offer too much to North Korea, or that negotiations will fall in a heap when the reality of the demise of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” sinks in.
A hard cap on North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability could be the new negotiating point. Now that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, constraining the Nort’s nuclear weapons capability is shaping as the most practical goal for the US in terms of its commitments to protecting its regional allies and maintaining the integrity of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
In a worst-case scenario, the Trump administration could use the summit as a straw man to mobilise a case for attacking North Korea. The appointment of the ultra-hawkish John Bolton as national security adviser would seem to signal a tough line, given his long record of advocacy for the use of force against the North.
For reasons I outlined at length last year (here, here and here), war on the Korean Peninsula remains a terrible option.
The Moon-Kim summit
Moon Jae-in’s meeting this week with Kim Jong-un is arguably the more important of the two summits. This meeting could help shape the negotiating agenda for the US-North Korea summit later this year.
A successful summit between Moon and Kim will need to produce some substantive points of agreement on key security issues. These include negotiation of a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to smaller confidence-building measures. The summit will allow Moon to “road test” a negotiating agenda, as David Kang has argued, for the later Trump-Kim meeting.
However, a nascent South-North détente emerging from the summit could constrain the US bargaining position. It will be much harder for Trump to play a game of high-stakes brinkmanship with the Kim regime if Kim and Moon have agreed to a clear pathway of confidence-building measures.
The South Korean government will be keen to railroad the Trump administration into an engagement track with Pyongyang. Some within the South Korean establishment see Trump as a loose cannon and his administration as an unreliable variable in Korean Peninsula security.
Trump’s lack of consultation with South Korea during his escalations of 2017, the continued absence of a permanent US ambassador to South Korea, and the lack of a coherent North Korea policy in Washington are seen as evidence that Seoul needs to be more activist in pursuing its own agenda.
Inter-Korean co-operation on the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year was successful in dialling down tensions on the Peninsula and closing the window, at least for the time being, on American military action against the North.
The end of denuclearisation politics has opened new possibilities for the direction of the Korean Peninsula. The tensions of 2017 showed us a glimpse of disaster. The summits of 2018 may represent a doorway to a new arrangement for collective management of Korean Peninsula security.
One of the coldest northern winters for many years proved a piece of good fortune for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but it may be the last happy moment on the Korean Peninsula for a long time. A war there is a distinct possibility. Some form of military action to disrupt North Korean nuclear weapon developments is even more likely.
Diplomacy may have run its course. We are at the most dangerous moment since the Korean War armistice in 1953. A war today could have unimaginable consequences: a catastrophic death toll, missile strikes beyond the peninsula, the first nuclear bombs to be used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The risk has long been real – and in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is alarmingly high. Events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Washington are pointing in a direction that is difficult, but essential, to contemplate.
A fear of mass civilian casualties and the perception that North Korea has a low bar on pre-emption have haunted US administrations. At least ten major North Korean atrocities and provocations since 1967 have been essentially passed over. The response has been sporadic attempts at diplomacy, backed by ever-tightening sanctions.
The Obama administration, faced with a paucity of good options and a hope that at some point the North Koreans would bend, articulated the Allied tactic as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration has said those days are over.
What has changed to bring us to this point? The first shift is the emergence of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following his father’s death in 2011. Clearly the most insecure of the dynastic line, Kim’s regime has been marked by regular and brutal purges of his retinue and deepening oppression of his people.
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are entwined with Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is non-negotiable. Last year there were 23 tests of missile capability, culminating in the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At that point, Kim declared his program “complete”.
Kim’s 2018 New Year statement attracted attention for its outreach to South Korea, an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally. This produced a flurry of diplomacy to include the North in the Winter Olympics.
For some, this raised hopes. But most observers had the sense that we had been here before, and none should be fooled. More significant was Kim’s indication that North Korea will focus on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.
The second major change in the Korean situation is the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump’s approach to national security has deviated more from his campaign promises than any other set of policies.
He has dismissed allies, including South Korea, even suggesting that nation might want to provide its own nuclear umbrella. He sensed his voter base was tired of American commitments and wars, yet now finds himself on the verge of a war that would dwarf any in recent times.
Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. His interventions, by tweet or otherwise, provoke instant mockery among the informed community. But he is the man in charge, and so his views bear close analysis. They reveal his method of processing the information and intelligence he is receiving. In response to a New Year nuclear boast from Kim, Trump tweeted:
Most commentary mocked this schoolyard exchange, but it was significant. Trump is seriously contemplating a war to disarm North Korea of its weapons.
Man in the middle
It would be folly to assume that Trump’s views are not widely held within his administration. His national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who has described North Korea as “the greatest immediate threat to the United States”, is a leading proponent of military action.
This has posed some unique challenges for the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, who understands the scale of a likely conflagration. Mattis has repeatedly warned that a conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic”, while also providing assurances of the ultimate outcome – total US victory and the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – so as to maintain deterrence.
Mattis works in tandem with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to achieve a diplomatic solution through a tighter sanctions regime. But Mattis matters to Trump; Tillerson doesn’t. Trump was angry about Tillerson’s suggestion that the US was prepared to begin talks with North Korea without preconditions.
We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a band-aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.
Trump’s principal source of advice is the Pentagon, which for years has worked on military options to pre-empt North Korea. The Pentagon’s primary duty is to work out how things can be done, a different task from saying whether they should be. Those who carry the diplomatic argument are sidelined.
This leaves Mattis in the weighty position of having to find both a solution and the enabling argument.
Mattis says the US has some potential military options that would not result in the devastation of Seoul, though he has not provided any details. How would it be done?
An apparent “preferred option” is the use of joint CIA and special forces teams – like those used in Afghanistan in 2001 – to seize the nuclear sites.
However, a covert operation of this kind would probably not be a standalone activity – extensive use of bombers and cruise missiles is likely. The possibility of a broader war through an accident or misinterpretation is substantial.
What would be the North Korean reaction to a limited punitive event? If Kim is as “rational” as is commonly claimed, a cruise missile strike to pre-empt a test would hardly trigger a massive response. Most likely, it would be a hit at a soft South Korean target or military base, or a cyberattack.
But neither a limited operation nor a wholesale assault on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be attempted without having in place the mechanisms for an all-out war. Defending Seoul would require the rapid degrading of the mortar, rocket, missile and artillery capabilities ranged against it.
Given the erosion of North Korea’s conventional capabilities, that might be doable. The problem would lie in what Kim might do in a situation where his regime’s survival was in question. Has he secreted nuclear weapons that could unleash devastation on South Korea and Japan? Half-a-dozen weapons would be economy-destroying; a dozen would be civilisation-destroying.
This brings us back to the question of why Trump would try. For him, the game is simple: North Korea shall not have an ICBM.
For the experts and advisers advocating a pre-emptive strike, it goes to the nature of Kim’s regime. North Korea is a nuclear power like no other, and its intentions are an open question. Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?
It is difficult to imagine that a pre-emptive US strike can do anything other than risk the devastation of South Korea and Japan, with dreadful human and environmental consequences. Small wonder former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said, before leaving the White House: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”
There is a closing, not closed, window for diplomacy. Any attack would need to be preceded by a comprehensive diplomatic strategy involving China. The US might want to test the waters with China and North Korea on solutions involving a major stand-down rather than entire elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
We probably have not yet seen the full weight China is capable of bringing to bear on North Korea. It would have to be a great deal to bring Kim to heel, and it is difficult to envisage such an outcome that would not undermine his sense of his regime’s legitimacy.
It is not yet midnight, but as the crisis deepens, the diplomatic and military options get more and more complex. In averting catastrophe, having a bigger nuclear button will not guarantee success. That is obvious to most informed observers.
But is it obvious to Trump? The answer is unknowable. What is certain is that his own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBMs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the prospect of war at 50/50.
The prediction is chilling. This is going to be a hard year.
That judgment remains valid, but last week a sliver of light appeared. Motivated at least in part by concern over the march toward confrontation we describe, both during and after the Olympics South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to buy time for diplomacy.
High-level negotiators from the South, following meetings with the North, reported a possibility their counterparts might be prepared to put their nuclear capability on the table in return for security guarantees.
Some analysts suggest the latter means the removal of US forces and guarantees to the South they might think about it, essentially a delaying tactic. Moon wants to test this at a meeting with his counterpart. Trump himself said this might be a start. Certainly in terms of management of allied relationships, the US would want to see what it means, though public statements by the North suggests it is pressing on with the nuclear plan.
Past experience would indicate this is nothing more than an effort at confusion. Still, we don’t know how the other side of the hill interprets Trump’s obvious preparedness for war. The US will certainly need to do some thinking about a matter that has attracted only sporadic attention to date – what does a diplomatic end game look like?
One senses the US clock is still ticking to midnight, and this is not an endless process without credible developments. A hard year ahead remains the case.
The prospect of South Korean and North Korean athletes marching together under a “unification” flag at this month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics signifies a brief respite in tensions rather than being a genuine thawing on the Korean peninsula.
After an initial surge of optimism in response to Pyongyang’s decision to accept Seoul’s offer to march as one Korea, reality has started to bite with the mechanics of implementing the deal.
While welcoming the Pyeongchang initiative, many South Koreans have pushed back against the decision to merge both countries’ women’s ice hockey teams, calling out the sexist nature of the decision (not a single woman was involved in determining the merger).
Meanwhile, citing “insulting” behaviour on the part of South Korean media, the North Koreans have cancelled a joint cultural performance with South Korea, scheduled for next week.
Understandably, the Pyeongchang “thaw” has attracted major headlines. But it obscures the significant possibility that we will witness major conflict on the Korean peninsula in 2018.
The South Korean government has worked hard to engage North Korea in structured dialogue in an effort to defuse the nuclear-armed state’s continued military threats. But there is nonetheless a growing risk that the Trump administration will authorise limited military strikes against the North’s weapons of mass destruction, conceivably within the next few months.
Despite extracting a commitment from the US that any military action against North Korea is contingent on first gaining South Korea’s endorsement, there is justifiable concern among South Koreans that the Trump administration will act unilaterally if US intelligence assesses Pyongyang is about to deploy an operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.
Given the extent to which we have underestimated the sheer pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development over the past decade, this intelligence assessment might happen sooner than we think. Donald Trump would then face a difficult problem: how to avoid being the president who allowed North Korea to achieve the capability to hit the US homeland with nuclear weapons.
Since coming to power, the Trump administration has been deliberating over whether to carry out preventive strikes to degrade Pyongyang’s ability to sprint to the finish line of acquiring a deployable ICBM that can hit the continental US with a nuclear payload.
An increasingly popular assumption is that the price of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can destroy prime targets on the US mainland is higher than risking a second Korean War. And this is not just the musings of a few hardheads in the Pentagon: a growing number of Americans believe some form of military action against North Korea is justified if sanctions and diplomacy fail to achieve denuclearisation.
Most worrying of all, a belief seems to be gathering pace that the US can somehow launch “surgical” military strikes while containing a larger conflict, because Kim Jong-un will not respond for fear of triggering an overwhelming retaliatory response.
There are two basic flaws underlying what one expert has termed “the myth of the limited strike”. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s highly unlikely Kim Jong-un will believe the Trump administration’s assurances that “surgical” strikes are not the opening phase of an all-out US assault aimed at overthrowing the regime.
When the US goes to war, it tends to go full throttle – in recent times, this has translated into regime change (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Why would the leadership in Pyongyang assess that this time around would be any different?
The second major flaw in the argument is that what is portrayed as limited in Washington, and among some armchair strategists supporting this course, will inevitably be seen in Pyongyang as a major assault on North Korean territory and its prized strategic assets.
Even in the scenario that Kim Jong-un actually believed the Trump administration did not intend to implement regime change, as Van Jackson notes, his position as North Korean supreme leader would be untenable domestically if he did not respond with force.
Pyongyang would have a compelling incentive to retaliate early with any nuclear reserve that survived a US first strike. In this scenario, the North Korean leadership would confront a stark choice of either using these weapons of mass destruction to maximum effect or risk losing them in follow-on US precision munition strikes.
As I have argued elsewhere, like all new nuclear powers, North Korea will place a premium on permissive command and control systems that allow authorities to use nuclear weapons whenever they want. This will be reflected in a hair-trigger launch posture if it perceives an imminent threat.
Whichever way you cut it, a US first strike against North Korea would almost certainly trigger major war on the Korean peninsula, with a high risk of escalation to full-scale nuclear conflict. While the appalling humanitarian consequences of this don’t need to be spelt out, the strategic illogic of the arguments advocating a first strike must be continually reinforced.