By Charles K. Armstrong
The US–North Korea summit in Singapore is about much more than North Korean denuclearisation. The meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offers an historic opportunity to begin restructuring the security environment in Northeast Asia and end the state of conflict between the United States and North Korea that has persisted for nearly seventy years.
The North Korean nuclear crisis as we know it began in the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, when the United States first accused North Korea of diverting nuclear fuel into weapons production. But nuclear confrontation on the Korean Peninsula has a much longer history, going back to the 1950s when the United States considered using the atomic bomb on North Korea during the Korean War and stationed tactical nuclear weapons in the South in 1958. North Korea, especially under Kim Jong-un, has pursued nuclear weapons as a means to deter the United States, which it sees as an existential threat in this prolonged and asymmetrical state of confrontation.
One reason the nuclear issue remains unresolved is that US policy since the 1990s has tended to separate the North Korean nuclear issue from the Korean War confrontation system that gave rise to it. But North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are the consequence, not the cause, of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. The Koreans, in the North and in the South, understand that, and the inter-Korean ‘Panmunjom Declaration’ of 27 April focusses not on denuclearisation (although that is one of the stated goals) but on the two Koreas’ ‘firm commitment to bring a swift end to the Cold War relic of longstanding division and confrontation’, transforming the ‘unnatural state of armistice’ into a ’robust peace regime’.
Some prominent Americans have gradually begun to see it this way as well. James Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence, acknowledged in The New York Times that asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons as a precondition for better relations with the United States — the longstanding policy of several US administrations — is a ‘dead end’. Clapper recognises the security concerns of the North: ‘If we can figure out a way to lead North Korea’s leaders to a place where they don’t feel so threatened, we could move away from the cusp of a cataclysmic war. All of this would benefit us, whether we eliminated their nuclear capacity or not’.
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Charles K. Armstrong is the Korea Foundation professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. He is the former director of Columbia’s Center for Korean Research and former Acting Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. He is the author, editor or co-editor of five books, including most recently “Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992” and “The Koreas.”