Can Kim Jong-Un Trust America?
The Korean War remains fresh in the minds of North Koreans. There is only a single generation gap between today's adults and those who actually lived through the total destruction of North Korea by US bombers. During the Korean War, US bombers carpet bombed North Korea 'back to the stone age', killing an estimated 20% of the North Korean population. Today's North Korean population learned first hand from their parents and grandparents about this destruction.
This experience is one that has not been forgotten and North Koreans today still believe they live under threat of attack. Indeed, with 37,000 US soldiers, airmen and marines currently stationed in South Korea, the threat of total destruction remains as real today as it did 65 years ago. Moreover, 50,000 US troops stand ready in Japan and a fleet of bombers in Guam. This is precisely why North Korea is seeking to enhance its defence capabilities by constructing nuclear weapons.
Imagine for a minute if some big scary dude killed a couple people in your family decades ago. Now imagine that same person has been camping out on your neighbor's lawn ever since. And, at the risk you grow too comfortable, occasionally he paces in front of your house cocking a shotgun. I think it would hard to convince your spouse to cancel the home alarm system.
Similarly, the US military presence near North Korea is not a quiet one. The US and South Korean armies conduct frequent drills on the Korean Peninsula, showcasing the alliance's destructive prowess to its weaker neighbor. It is only natural that the weaker neighbor would consider arming itself in response.
If the big scary dude later came to your house offering to leave if you first disarmed your alarm system, would you? How about if the same big scary dude had previously made the identical offer to your neighbors only to bust down their front door once they turned their alarms off?
Well, this is essentially what the US did to Libya, Iran and Iraq to various degrees, and Jong-Un has learned from their mistakes.
Libya: Muammar Gaddafi was convinced by the US to stop his nuclear program in 2003. In 2011, the US via NATO backed Libyan rebels who overthrew and killed Gaddafi, despite his pleas for NATO to cease operations because he had voluntarily disarmed earlier in the decade.
Iran: Donald Trump has expressed his desire to renege on the promises made by the US in its deal with Iran to stop production of nuclear weapons.
Iraq: George W. Bush raised the specter of an Iraqi nuclear program (later shown to be false) as the pretext to overthrow and execute Saddam Hussein.
America even has a history of reneging on agreements with North Korea, as it broke its promises on a variety of components of the 1994 nuclear deal.
How good is the American word if it is continually broken?
To resolve the current nuclear stalemate with North Korea, Kim Jong-Un needs two things: 1) He needs to be able to tell his people that he negotiated a 'win' for North Korea, and 2) He needs to be convinced that US will not go back on its word.
The reality is that it will be very difficult for America to convince Jong-Un that it honors its deals. Because, frankly, given America's trail of broken promises there are few convincing reasons for Kim Jong-Un to trust America.