In 1938, then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from peace negotiations with Nazi Germany declaring that he had achieved “peace for our time.” This “peace” was to be accomplished at the price of giving Germany control over the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. Sadly, less than a year later, Adolf Hitler's Germany invaded Poland when it would not surrender to German territorial demands. Germany had finally started a real war, World War II.
What Chamberlain appeared to miss is that the German objective was not to achieve “peace,” but rather to diplomatically undermine the strength and sovereignty of its neighbors en route to German dominance of Europe. For Hitler and other Nazi leaders, negotiations were an alternative means of waging war.
We see a similar pattern with the current North Korean regime. It has reportedly declared that 2015 is the “year of a great war for unification.” It undoubtedly recognizes that the relative economic power of South Korea would allow South Korea to dominate any peaceful Korean unification, and therefore that a war of conquest is the only route for North Korea to dominate unification of Korea.
But for North Korea to win a war of conquest against the South, the North must undermine the South Korea-U.S. alliance and degrade the readiness of the combined South Korea and U.S. military forces. The North has thus chosen to attack the major South Korea-U.S. military exercises that strengthen South Korea-U.S. military capabilities and cooperation. It has done so by promising not to carry out a nuclear test (which the United Nations has prohibited the North from doing) and by offering negotiations with the South and separately with the United States if the South Korea-U.S. exercises are canceled.
For many, the North Korean approach seems reasonable. “The state-run Rodong Sinmun daily on Sunday said if the South Korean government 'truly wants North-South talks and improved ties, it should demonstrate its sincerity by taking action to stop all the war rehearsals against North Korea,” the South Korean news outlet The Chosun Ilbo reported recently. Yet if this North Korean offer were sincere, wouldn't the North stop talking of preparing for a “great war of unification” and offer to cancel its own preparations for such a war: its ongoing winter training exercises? But the North has not offered to cancel its winter training exercises. How hypocritical can the North be? If the North is serious about negotiating for improved Korean relations, it should “demonstrate its sincerity by taking action to stop all the war rehearsals'' against South Korea.
Meanwhile, many have complained about the U.S. government position of “strategic patience” with regard to North Korea. Because North Korea has reneged on many of its past-negotiated commitments, the United States has been waiting for the North to demonstrate its sincere intent to denuclearize before the United States returns to the Six-Party Talks or starts other formal negotiations. In practice, few in South Korea expect that the Six-Party Talks will lead to North Korean denuclearization unless the North changes its attitude—exactly what the United States is asking North Korea to demonstrate. Instead, the North apparently wants the Six-Party Talks to recognize the North as a nuclear power, the opposite of denuclearization; why should the United States and South Korea join such negotiations?
North Korea insists on not having to meet preconditions before restarting the Six-Party Talks. Yet the North is insisting that South Korea, in particular, meet preconditions for other negotiations with the North. Is North Korea really sincere about wanting to negotiate improved relations with South Korea and the United States, or is it seeking to undermine the strength and sovereignty of its neighbor, just as Germany did before World War II?
There is, of course, value to negotiating with any state, including North Korea, in part to test whether there is any possibility of peace and improved relations. President Park Geun-hye has properly argued that negotiations with the North will be useful to build trust and test the trustworthiness of the North. But there is little to be gained by meeting North Korean preconditions given the North's history of not being trustworthy and its current hypocrisy. It is North Korea's turn to demonstrate that South Korea and the United States should trust it. If the North is unprepared to demonstrate its sincerity, what chance is there that negotiations will amount to anything more than Kim Jong-un's effort to wage war by another means? Does North Korea seek peace for our time, or dissolution of the South Korea-U.S. alliance en route to conquest of the ROK?
Bruce W. Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on February 3, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.