Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “under the right circumstances,” he would meet with North Korean President Kim Jong Un, who continues to increase his nation’s nuclear arsenal. With the recent election in South Korea of President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned for renewed negotiations between the two Koreas, the circumstances might indeed be just right.
Kim Jong Un has repeatedly stated that he wants the same thing North Korea’s previous leaders—his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung—wanted: first, assurance that North Korea won’t be invaded again, and second, electricity for economic development to replace the hydropower capacity the United States destroyed with massive strategic bombing in the first years of the Korean War, which was fought from 1950 to 1953. These were the two demands North Korea made, and the Clinton administration agreed to, in 1994, when North Korea pledged to stop producing plutonium in exchange for nuclear power plants.
North Korea’s president is fully aware that attacking the United States would be tantamount to suicide. In 2000, as President Kim Jong Il told a South Korean newspaper publisher, “[Our] missiles cannot reach the United States, and if I launched them the U.S. would fire a thousand missiles back and we would not survive. I know that very well. But I have to let them know I have missiles. I am making them because only then will the United States talk to me.” Shortly thereafter, during a visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he agreed to a moratorium on missile construction.
The 1994 energy-for-weapons agreement worked until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, after which U.S. President George W. Bush claimed that North Korea was part of a so-called axis of evil with Iraq and Iran. Two years later, the United States invaded Iraq. North Korean leaders quite rationally concluded that Iraq’s mistake was not its pursuit of a weapon but rather its failure to build one. They conducted Washington’s continued pursuit of a failed strategy is evidence that it, not Pyongyang, is the irrational actor.
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