Could peace be about to break out on the Korean Peninsula?
On Tuesday, South Korean envoys reported a breakthrough after returning from the North.
“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office announced, adding, “It made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”
Taking to Twitter, President Trump cautiously welcomed the “possible progress” but also noted it could be “false hope.”
Make no mistake: North Korea’s offer warrants not hope but caution. Dictator Kim Jong-un’s move comes straight out of the rogue-regime playbook: Offer peace to distract from preparations for war. That it repeatedly works reflects the naiveté of Western officials for whom history begins anew with every administration.
The simple fact is this: While Americans (and South Koreans) often view engagement as a tool of conflict resolution, North Korea’s regime and its Chinese sponsors see diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy with which to tie opponents’ hands while they seize strategic advantage.
It’s a pattern that dates back 65 years. For Americans, the Korean War is ancient history, but for North Korea, it never ended. After all, the 1953 armistice was only a cease-fire, and not always an effective one.
Over the decades, North Korea has staged hundreds of attacks across the DMZ. In 1968, its commandos seized the USS Pueblo, a US naval vessel operating in international waters. When the Johnson administration dispatched a carrier strike group offshore, North Korea agreed to discuss the Pueblo’s return. After the White House took force off the table, talks stalled.
Today, the Pueblo remains moored in North Korea.
Pyongyang couples provocation with outreach. In 1969, just a day after offering talks, North Korea shot down an unarmed US plane over the Sea of Japan, killing 31. Talks resumed. Four days later, North Korean forces shot down an American helicopter.
Jimmy Carter was North Korea’s dream. As a candidate, he suggested unilateral withdrawal from Korea. North Korea wasted no time offering him diplomacy. But as North Koreans talked, they ramped up aggression toward Japan. Their goal was never peace, but sowing division between the United States and its allies.
During the Reagan era, Chinese diplomats told their US counterparts North Korea wanted talks. The very next day, North Korean agents set off a bomb in Burma designed to murder much of South Korea’s visiting leadership.
The same pattern extended to the North Korean nuclear and missile program. In exchange for a denuclearization declaration, President George H.W. Bush agreed to remove American nuclear missiles from, and cancel military exercises with, South Korea. Where the State Department saw an ironclad agreement, however, North Korea saw meaningless paper.
Bill Clinton fell for the same trap. His team negotiated the Agreed Framework, which promised North Korea billions of dollars to end its illegal nuclear work. With cash in hand, however, North Korea ignored its commitments.
As Clinton’s team tried to repair the damage in a new round of talks, North Korea launched a missile developed during the Agreed Framework freeze over Japan.
The United States is not the only country North Korea plays like a fiddle. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang in what he described as a triumph for diplomacy. It wasn’t. Kim Dae-jung’s government had secretly paid the North $200 million for the photo-op.
North Korea’s new offer is not about peace but cash, distraction and sowing division. If past is precedent, expect more violence.
But, if Pyongyang truly wants peace, its path should be clear: Abide by earlier agreements.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.