Over recent weeks, events involving North Korea have been dramatic, to say the least. In rapid succession, we have gone from Pyongyang’s surprise participation in the Winter Olympics to a highly choreographed and visually compelling meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas. This is all prelude to an imminent Summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. All of this represents a sudden break in a narrative that began with the Korean War, followed by 70 years of deep hostility and hair-trigger military preparations on both sides of the DMZ, and culminating in Pyongyang’s threats to attack the US mainland.
The astonishing moments were too many to count during the summit on Friday, April 27 between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. Kim pulling Moon over to the northern side of the border in an unscripted move, Kim and Moon marching down the red carpet to the tune of traditional Korean music, Kim’s team of bodyguards running alongside his Mercedes Benz when he went back into the north—it’s almost impossible to pick out one moment as more astounding than other.
At a time when “ordinary” doesn’t seem to exist in Korean affairs, Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to China affirmed that for all the change, some fundamentals remain the same on the Korean peninsula. Not that the trip was clearly or easily foreseen. The visit was Kim’s first public one to a foreign country since he came to power in late 2011. The first concrete signs that a high official was travelling from North Korea to China came in the shape of added security along the railway route from Pyongyang to Beijing, at Dandong station in China, across from the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. Both North Korean and Chinese authorities kept the visit secret, and it was only confirmed when the countries’ media outlets reported it after it happened.
The news that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for talks, and that Trump has accepted, is surely a breakthrough given the past months of sky-high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program. The two are tentatively set to meet in May of this year, but there is still a long way to go: talks could falter at the planning stage over issues such as what should be on the table, or where the parties should meet (or who should represent the countries). But for now, this is at least a step back from the brink that the world looked to be standing at only a few weeks or months ago.
The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.
The tragic passing of Otto Warmbier on Monday, June 19, says a lot about the North Korean system. His case is highly unusual because North Korea tends not to treat its foreign prisoners with physical brutality such that they sustain any permanent injuries. We still do not know what exactly happened to the 22-year old college student during his approximately one and a half-year long detention in North Korea, beginning in January last year. After he was returned to America only six days before his death, Warmbier’s doctors said he had lost a severe amount of brain tissue during his time in North Korea and said that MRI scans showed he had most likely suffered a brain injury shortly after he was convicted to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. They found no clear signs of beatings, torture, or the like. North Korean doctors claimed he contracted botulism, took a sleeping pill and never woke up, but American doctors found no evidence of botulism.