Well, the mad man did it again. No, not Kim Jong Un, dictator of North Korea. Donald Trump, the President of the United States, has successfully brokered a diplomatic agreement with the North Koreans, to include a plan to full denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. This, of course, has spurred a flurry of reactions from all corners of the political and diplomatic communities around the world. Most of it is predictable; the Democrats are looking for a reason to make President Trump look bad, the Republicans are exalting it as his crowning achievement, and two members of the Norwegian parliament have nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But as usual, there is far more nuance involved in this situation than most people would like to think. History has shown us that if a situation seems too good to be true, it usually is. While the North Koreans may hold to their promises this time, they have agreed to similar negotiations (to varying degrees) at least six other times in the last three decades. All have of course, fallen through, with the North Koreans picking up their nuclear weapons program where it was left off, or continuing it in secret, while the various agencies that were to act as watchdogs kowtow to North Korean restrictions on inspection teams and regulations.
That being said, patterns in the history of international relations predicts much of this. North Korea is in a precarious position: a small country almost constantly in the international spotlight, no unconventional weapons to speak of (and low grade conventional weapons in the meantime), and while North Korea is ostensibly backed by China, it is facing down US forces off it’s coast and on it’s border, regularly exercising with their South Korean allies, while North Korea’s main ally has no real interest in backing them in a “hot” war. Because of these distinct disadvantages, the hermit kingdom would and does seek to balance the scales of military power with unconventional weapons. The same pattern has been seen with other small, poor countries facing the might of a large first-world military.
But there is one key point that many of the talking heads and policy experts being interviewed on the major networks are overlooking. One of the primary complaints of the North Korean regime is the regular, large-scale military exercises that the US and the South Korean military partake in together, sometimes on a monthly basis. While on the US/South Korean side, it is standard operating procedure to be prepared for a defensively oriented conflict, the North Korean government sees these same exercises as preparation for an offensively oriented conflict. Which is what makes the following point so important: Donald Trump has called for the suspension of all joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, a hitherto unheard of move. While it is a gamble, this will put the onus on the North Koreans to meet their commitments in full, while still maintaining the availability of US forces in South Korea for defensive purposes.
Regardless of which side of the issue one takes here, there are moves and counter-moves in play that demand a more nuanced look at the big picture. While this may end up being another failed chapter in the dense history of North Korean denuclearization, the pieces in play here may signal a true change in the winds, a departure from what has become the norm, and the making of history itself in our time.