Peace talks that once appeared so promising between North Korea and the US seem to have stagnated while China’s President Xi Jinping is making history with a visit to North Korea in June 2019, reinserting China into the conversation. As waves of political discontent grow between the two countries, the path to peace seems all the more unclear.
To understand where US-North Korea peace talks are going, one must understand the motivations of the parties involved. Both countries, ultimately, want peace. But both parties also want to minimize the cost of peace. And the price tag for peace is very different for the US and North Korea.
The main concern of the US is its influence. The US Navy has bases in Japan and South Korea as well strategic locations throughout the Indian Ocean. American forces have been present in East Asia since World War II. Almost 78 years have been dedicated to maintaining the US military in East Asia - this includes its influence throughout and following the Cold War. Because the US maintains extensive peacekeeping forces half a world away, the US has a voice on the other side of the globe. The US also currently conducts a considerable amount of trade with China, South Korea and Japan, as well as many countries in South and Central Asia. If war were to break out in East Asia and a world power like China were to be involved, the US’s influence would be disrupted.
North Korea is in a different position altogether in its peace talks with the US. Although North Korea wants peace in East Asia, the regime knows its survival is entirely dependent on the regime holding onto power. With the UN Commission of Inquiry looming over their heads for human rights violations and abuses, the North Korean leadership knows that the only way to avoid international criminal courts for crimes against humanity is by maintaining absolute power in North Korea. This is ultimately what motivates the country’s seemingly erratic behavior, calculated displays of military force and weapon tests.
This motivation drives the North Korean dictatorship as it comes to the negotiating table with US officials. While North Korean leaders want peace and prosperity for their people, they certainly will not give their own power or lives in the process.
The fear that North Korean leaders have is understandable. Consider a scenario where North Korea becomes more like China. While prosperity in North Korea may skyrocket with trade and increased international influence, its citizens would be exposed to Western-style consumerism and some freedom to access outside information. This is a dangerous scenario for North Korea’s leadership. An influx of the very same foriegn investors and ideas that bring it more wealth and influence may spark realization, discontent, and violent upheaval.
In March 2018, North Korean officials drew a fascinating connection between themselves and the former leaders of Libya. It has been a source of contention between North Korea and the US after witnessing the events of Arab Spring. Muammar Gaddafi succumbed to international pressure in the years directly following 9/11 and gave up his nuclear program. This sparked a short-term peace for the country. But a little less than a decade later, US allegiance quickly shifted to the anti-Gaddafi contingency in the country. Gaddafi and his cadre died violent deaths at the hands of their own citizens.
The fear of losing their power and ultimately their lives is precisely why the country is so hesitant to give up its nuclear arsenal. This is all the more tragic for the North Korean people who are currently facing one of the worst food shortages in decades.
No one can predict what will happen between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. But understanding why these negotiations are so important for the parties involved will help us better pray for peace. We hope everyone will be praying with us.