By the numbers alone, the prospects of peace on the Korean Peninsula can look bleak to the rest of the world:
For 27 years, five American presidents have tried to denuclearize North Korea. Three times the regime appeared to have suspended its nuclear program. Yet it may now have more than 30 atomic warheads. Kim Jong-un, the current leader in Pyongyang, has launched more missiles than his father and grandfather combined. Last November, he tested a missile capable of traveling thousands of miles – and able to reach all of the United States.
In diplomatic circles, trust of North Korea stands at zero. Yet trust – a difficult commodity to measure – is exactly what the Kim regime now needs to end its growing isolation and to forestall economic collapse. In recent months, the noose of United Nations-endorsed sanctions has tightened considerably. An estimated three-quarters of North Koreans are “food insecure.”
Perhaps to rebuild trust, North Korea announced March 6 that it is willing to consider giving up its strategic armaments if “the safety of its regime [is] guaranteed and military threats against North Korea removed,” according to a South Korea spokesman. Such a proposal to eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons is quite a dramatic reversal. Last year the regime claimed the bombs were a “treasured sword of justice.”
Yet with its credibility gone, the North needs a dramatic U-turn to end sanctions. During any coming negotiations, it can no longer easily exact concessions on aid or demand conditions. Its broken promises on deals made in 1994 and 2005 have taught a lesson to South Korea, the US, and China, its chief ally.
As a harsh winter takes a toll on North Korea, the Kim dynasty may have come to fear regime change more from within than from without. And China certainly shows new worries about a possible flood of refugees across its border.
A model for hope is the 2015 deal with Iran. Long before Iran agreed to give up its nuclear program in negotiations, it first had to earn the trust of Western countries, at least on the nuclear issue. International isolation had pushed the regime to fear its own people more than external foes. The first step for Iran was to stop being disingenuous about its nuclear ambitions. Through concrete steps, such as international inspections, it regained trust.
North Korea may be at such a point. Yet testing its motives will require careful diplomacy by the US and South Korea. Trust is not easily won. But if the Kim regime can make irreversible concessions on its nuclear program, it will earn trust aplenty.