Dr Van Jackson has some stamps to show anyone who thinks US President Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is going to result in North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.
Jackson is a former adviser in the Office of the US Secretary of Defence who is now a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington and a defence and strategy fellow in its Centre for Strategic Studies.
He brought out the stamps during the panel discussion War or Peace? Predictions on the Outcomes of the 2018 North Korea–United States Leaders’ Summit, hosted last week by the Victoria Political Science and International Relations Doctoral Association in conjunction with the Asia Media Centre.
The stamps were part of his argument for saying the history of North Korea’s relationship with the US could only lead you to deep scepticism about the summit.
“North Korea has no theory of security for itself absent nuclear weapons,” said Jackson. “So I’m Kim Jong-un, I need nuclear weapons. It’s a legacy I inherited but it’s one I made my own and it makes eminent geopolitical sense for me given my neighbourhood and it’s part of my own legitimacy story […]
“More important than that is North Korea’s nuclear weapons are in the preamble to their constitution, they’re ingrained in 25 years of propaganda, and they have an entire nuclear weapons industry around which people’s livelihoods are based.
“Maybe all that can be explained away or dismissed or it’s not convincing enough. So consider this: when our very own Associate Professor David Capie [director of the Centre for Strategic Studies] visited North Korea last month at their invitation to talk about the possibility of improving relations, the North Koreans offered him and his large delegation from around Southeast Asia commemorative stamps celebrating the [North Koreans’] November 28 2017 [intercontinental ballistic missile] launch.
“It’s a nuclear status fait accompli. It says accomplishment of the historic cause perfecting the national nuclear forces [has been reached]. This just happened and they’re [already] introducing commemorative stamps about it. The stamps were issued and presented to foreign delegations after the Olympics [in which North Korea participated in South Korea], after all that love and harmony.
“You don’t do this if your intention is to get rid of nukes.”
The missile launch, more than sanctions or Trump’s tweets and other tough talk, was what led to the summit, said Jackson.
“Kim Jong-un and the North Korean state media have an express strategy going back to at least 2016 and they’re executing it to a tee. They said they were going to chase a secure second-strike nuclear capability. Once they rectified the nuclear balance of power they were going to pivot nuclear diplomacy. They achieved that on November 28 2017 in perfecting the national nuclear forces. One month later, Kim Jong-un gives a new year’s speech where he says, ‘Hey, let’s do diplomacy now.’ He sends a delegation to the Olympics and now he’s having all these summits.
“Why? Because it advances all of their goals. He moves closer to becoming the kind of recognised nuclear state [he wants to be] and elevating his standing in the international community, while potentially relieving sanction pressures from countries like China, which is why you go to meet [Chinese President] Xi Jinping even though you blew him off for the past six years.”
North Korea has “a very strong history of responding to pressure with pressure”, said Jackson.
“Every time we implemented a new round of sanctions, rapped them over the hand about human rights, they would launch missile tests, and they kept doing it. And this is the pattern that plays out. Sanctions and pressure and threats leading to more tests leading to counter-threats, and this is the cycle. It keeps going and keeps going. Until November 28 2017.”
Jackson warned about the perils of Trump claiming the summit was a result of him exerting “maximum pressure”.
Jackson said the North Koreans were “pissed off that Trump was going to rallies and saying, ‘Hey, I brought Kim down with nothing more than some talk’ […] Basically, Trump is in mission accomplished manner. He’s celebrating before he’s won anything; he’s cashing in before anything’s actually happened. And the North Korean media responded. It said, ‘Look, maximum pressure is not what brought this about, sanctions are not what brought this about. If you persist with that line of reasoning, you’re going to find out that you were wrong.’”
Jackson saw three plausible outcomes for the summit, all of which could be packaged as a success by Trump, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but all of which threatened “outcomes in the future that are more dangerous than what we have today. As if that was even possible.”
North Korea commits to denuclearisation rhetorically but implements the commitment only partially or not at all. In that outcome, “would we be seeing the same events that played out in the 1990s, in 2007, in 2012? We know how that ends; that’s how we got to the nuclear crisis in 2017 in the first place.”
Kim and Trump commit to a deal that stops short of full denuclearisation, with North Korea getting rid of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could threaten the US but retaining a regional strike capability. That would have dramatic regional consequences, said Jackson.
Kim and Trump reach no agreement about denuclearisation but nonetheless sign a peace treaty. This would be the most disastrous outcome, said Jackson, because eventually foreign policy hawks would return to power in South Korea and when they did they would “do their own version of breaking the Iran deal” in terms of relations with North Korea. If North Korea still had nuclear weapons, “the situation becomes explosive. Especially if the US isn’t there because they made an agreement when Trump met Kim”.
The only outcome Jackson saw that wasn’t more dangerous later on was “where North Korea fully denuclearises, but if I’m looking at the history I see no prospect of it”.
One of the other three discussion panellists, Associate Professor Stephen Epstein, director of Asian languages and cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, highlighted the difficulty of making predictions where Trump is concerned, given he was so “capricious, volatile, unpredictable”.
Epstein had joked with friends that there was little point him preparing for the discussion “until pretty much the morning before and that’s really proved quite correct. I started thinking about what I wanted to say but look what’s happened since the start of the week: there are signs that the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is back-pedalling, with a BBC report about how [North Korean] foreign ministry officials have said the US was deliberately provoking the North by suggesting sanctions won’t be lifted until it gives up nuclear weapons. Then we had Trump declare a unilateral withdrawal from the Iran deal coming from the US, which is not a wonderful message to be sending on the eve of the summit. ‘Yes, of course you can trust us to keep our word!’”
Epstein also noted a significant gaffe on the part of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his trip to North Korea to make summit arrangements.
Pompeo was reported to have said: “Today what we’re hoping to do is put some outlines around the substance of the agenda for the summit between the President and Chairman Un.”
“Now those of you who know anything about Korean names will realise that’s not exactly the correct way to address the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And this also gives me pause for thought. Concern, I’d say. Okay, a lot of my students on essays regularly get East Asian names wrong. I accept that, and that’s not a problem, as it’s something they need to learn. But Pompeo is somebody who’s been working in the field for several years and is representing the US.
“For him to make a gaffe of such a basic nature suggests a lack of preparation in terms of what the US is doing, what it is heading into.”
Nonetheless, Epstein allowed himself the hope that the summit might be successful.
“There is a tendency to see North Korea as static [and] in a dynasty that’s not going to budge. But other societies and nations around the world certainly change and progress. And there are many ways in which we have seen social change within North Korea. The circumstances of the world are changing as well, so it may be possible. I’m not going to bet on that, that’s for sure. But it may be possible.”