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We are seeing some encouraging signs from Korea. The leaders of the North and South met at Panmunjom, shook hands, embraced, and stepped across the boundary into the other side — that’s quite a surprise.

Apparently, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, has decided on a different strategy, abandoning his rocket testing and threats to obliterate American cities. Now, he offers to cease menacing the U.S. and make nice with the South. He is ready to meet with Donald Trump to talk about nuclear disarmament.

So, what is going on here? Kim has obviously changed drastically, but why? Mr. Trump may be right in saying that the sanctions the U.S. and others have imposed on North Korea have become intolerable, and Kim has to do something to get them lifted. It is possible that North Korea now faces famine and economic collapse, and Kim may fear a popular uprising if things don’t change.

The contrast between North and South Korea could not be more pronounced. South Korea is an economic powerhouse. They build cars, ships, appliances, electronics and countless consumer items that are shipped throughout the world. Their government, while plagued at times with corruption, is democratic. Their people are prosperous. North Korea is a harsh dictatorship, where the army is used to oppress the people and free speech is absent. Its economy is a failed attempt at communism which has led to poverty and starvation for millions of its people.

North Korea’s major achievement has been the building of a nuclear arms capability sufficient to threaten all of its neighbors and the U.S. They have done this to strengthen their position in dealing with other nations, but that is precisely why they have been so heavily sanctioned.

Now, Kim wants to talk about nuclear disarmament. He has done this before. Agreements have been reached, and he has reneged on the terms. Kim may believe he can get by with this sort of behavior again. If so, U.S. negotiators must build strict verification procedures into any agreement.

Kim has to be thinking about past disarmament agreements. Omar Khadhafi, the dictator in Libya, agreed to get rid of his nuclear weapons in order to lift sanctions. He’s dead now, the victim of a popular uprising. In the Iran nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop developing its nuclear warhead capability for ten years in exchange for sanctions being lifted. However, President Trump is currently threating to withdraw from the deal and calling it all sorts of bad names. Kim might well wonder if any deal with the United States might suffer the same fate.

If Kim is sincere about denuclearization — and he may not have any alternative at this point — he is certainly not going to surrender all of his nuclear weapons. That’s all he has. But Trump is saying that the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is an absolute necessity. The only way to compromise these two positions is for the U.S. to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, which, in reality, it is. In return, North Korea would agree to stop building rockets, quit testing, and shut down key nuclear facilities. And there must be iron-clad inspections to verify compliance. In that case, some of the sanctions could be lifted.

This is not a great solution, but it is a way to move on. It would leave North Korea with an erratic dictator with nuclear power. But the world has been living with several of those for years. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and, of course, Russia. Add to that China, India, Israel and NATO.

In such an arrangement, the U.S. would have to deal with North Korea as a nuclear power the same way it has dealt with Russia and others. It’s called MAD — mutually assured destruction. Potential enemies know that any use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. will be met with assured destruction. The U.S. armed forces have the capability to wipe North Korea from the face of the Earth. That is the ultimate deterrent.

Trump has threatened to remove nuclear weapons by military force in Iran and, by implication, in North Korea. We are talking here about another Iraq war, only worse. And for the U.S. to undertake another war on the Korean peninsula would also be a disaster, especially if it went nuclear.

Let’s hope that Trump’s pride in making deals overcomes and that he will be able to work out things with Kim Jong-un to halt the North’s nuclear program and stabilize things in that part of the world.

David Conrad, of Murphysboro, is a retired SIUC professor of history and the author of several books.


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