North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Surveillance is pervasive, arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and punishments for political offenses are severe. The state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners where torture, forced labor, starvation, and other atrocities take place. While some social and economic changes have been observed in recent years, including a growth in small-scale private business activity, human rights violations are still widespread, grave, and systematic.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s desire to negotiate without preconditions is not what it seems: After all, removing preconditions requires the formal voiding of every previous commitment North Korea made in negotiations. But, the risk goes further. Any peace treaty would end the United Nations Command which legitimizes and formalizes the U.S. presence in South Korea. In effect, the Trump administration would be trading the security of a key U.S. ally and one of the most vibrant economies in East Asia for the promise of North Korean denuclearization, a promise North Korea has repeatedly broken.Trump sees himself as a master negotiator and, without doubt, the president deserves credit for not yet rewarding North Korean bluster in the manner that so many of his predecessors did. But, while the United States should aspire to peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should never be done on North Korea’s terms. Indeed, any juxtaposition of North and South Korea today shows just how wise President Truman’s decision was to defend South Korea from communist aggression. Trump may see himself as master of the art of the deal, but true mastery comes with a recognition that sometimes it’s best not to negotiate a deal in the first place or, at the very least, not negotiate any new deal until an adversary implements all the terms of previous deals to which it has committed.
For good or ill, the Kim regime’s strategic objectives remain essentially unchanged since 1950, when Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) launched the surprise attack against the South that triggered the Korean War. To this day, North Korean ideology posits the unconditional reunification of the Korean people under an “independent socialist state” — and this presupposes the eradication of the existing government in South Korea.Given South Korea’s extraordinary economic accomplishments and democratic progress, the North’s quest for unconditional absorption of the South could only begin to seem even remotely plausible if the U.S.-South Korea alliance were disbanded, U.S. troops sent home, and Washington’s nuclear guarantee withdrawn. And this is exactly where the North’s long-range nuclear missile program figures in. By pointing a nuclear pistol at Uncle Sam, the Kim family regime hopes it can eventually force the United States out of the Korean Peninsula — and thereby reset the contest against the South.