Rollercoaster Ride to Peace on Korean Peninsula?

“The road to hell,” the saying goes, is “paved with good intentions.” If a path to peace in Korea, however long and winding, emerges from the currently scheduled June 12 Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un, it will have been paved by the best and worst of acts and actors.

On May 24 alone, for example – perhaps the craziest day yet in the life of the crisis – North Korea claimed to have demolished its only nuclear test site; President Trump seemingly pulled the plug on the summit; and UN Secretary General António Guterres launched – though it sank largely without trace in the media – “Securing Our Common Future,” an ambitious “Agenda for Disarmament” designed to spare future generations the scourge of conventional war and intolerable threat of nuclear destruction. A closer look at each of these developments may help ‘set the table’ for Singapore.



On September 3 last year – without doubt the darkest hour of the war scare so far – North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in 11 years at its mountainous Punggye-ri underground test site in the remote northeast of the ‘hermit kingdom.’ Measured against the 15-kiloton yield of the Hiroshima explosion, the successive yields of the Punggye-ri tests tell the story of Pyongyang’s determination to join the ‘big boys’ of the Nuclear Club: 1 kiloton; 2; 6; 6; 10; then, stunningly, 150-200 – clearly a two- stage, fission-fusion hydrogen bomb.

By the end of 2017, after a series of successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, the North stood on the verge of ‘marrying’ its new thermonuclear weapon to a delivery system capable of striking the mainland US, a menace President Trump infamously declared he would meet with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

In the ‘normal’ course of nuclear weapons development, the North would continue to reap the dividends of its immense investment in Punggye-ri to test and refine, miniaturizing the size and maximizing the yield of its warheads. Without more tests, in fact, the fear (or hope) was that that final, fateful ‘marriage’ of ‘tip’ and ‘spear’ might remain ‘unconsummated.’ Which was why, as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump confidant, told The Atlantic in December 2017, if “the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb,” the chances “we use the military option” shoot from “three in ten” to “70 percent.” More even than missile tests, or any other nefarious nuclear activity, Punggye-ri, for Graham, was the thread by which peace on the peninsula hung; and had he then been asked which was more likely by June 2018, the site’s destruction in war or peaceful decommissioning, the answer would have been grimly ‘obvious.’

North-South Korea border. (Photo by Michael Day, CC BY 2.0,, via Wikimedia Commons)

North-South Korea border. (Photo by Michael Day, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Less than four months of explosive diplomacy later, Chairman Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Punmunjom ‘Peace House’ in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the 38th Parallel – the fold on the Cold War chess-board still artificially dividing the Peninsula – to sign the ‘Punmunjom Declaration,’ “solemnly declaring” before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and that a new era of peace has begun.” Though the declaration, the culmination of a process of express détente begun in symbolic earnest at the ‘Peace Olympics’ in Pyeongchang (South Korea) in February, does not spell out what ‘no more war’ entails, one obvious inference – that it would not entail more H-bomb tests – was confirmed as early as May 12, when journalists from South Korea, Russia, China, the US and UK were invited to attend a “ceremony for dismantling the nuclear test ground.”

The invitation, alas, was not extended to independent scientific experts or international inspectors, generating suspicion the demolition would be a ‘PR stunt,’ either a display of superficial destruction, designed to impress but actually reversible, or an attempt to claim credit for a fait accompli, the irreversible closure of the site last September by a blast registering 6.3 on the Richter Scale (with major aftershocks).

CNN reports destruction of Punggye-ri nuclear test site, 24 May 2018. (Source: YouTube)

CNN reports destruction of Punggye-ri nuclear test site, 24 May 2018. (Source: Youtube)

To judge by satellite imagery and other evidence, the extreme violence of the last detonation indeed ‘retired’ (collapsed and contaminated) one portion of the sprawling complex, the ‘North Portal’ where five of the six tests have been conducted. However, as the highly-respected, US-based monitoring group 38 North reported on April 30, “newly acquired synthetic aperture radar data of the…site provides additional evidence that the two mountainous areas accessible by the South and West Portals remain viable, and could support future underground nuclear testing if there were to be a political decision to do so. The data also corroborates Kim Jong Un’s publicly reported statement [April 29] that two tunnels of the site remain in good condition.”

By mid-May, 38 North was reporting the “first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway. Several key operational support buildings, located just outside the North, West and South Portals, have been razed since our last analysis. Some of the rails for the mining carts, which had led from the tunnels to their respective spoil piles, have apparently been removed. Additionally, some carts seem to have been tipped over and/or disassembled, and several small sheds/outbuildings around the site had been removed.” And although “other more substantial buildings around the facility remain intact…and no tunnel entrances appear to have yet been permanently closed,” this “may be because…the final dismantlement” was being saved for the closing ceremony.

If so, the huge, hammer-blow explosions described by the journalists on May 24 were probably the last nails in the coffin of Punggye-ri, and the “sadness” seen by CNN’s Will Ripley on the faces of “those watching, who’d worked so hard to make this place” a symbol of national pride and achievement, quite genuine.


There may even have been shock, not just on-site but at senior leadership levels, at the boldness and speed of Kim Jong-un’s move. Voluntarily forgoing the option of future tests – unilaterally capping a program on the brink of intense development – is a confidence-building measure of psychological, as well as political and practical, significance, and though it should have been confirmed by outside experts – and should now be followed by North Korea’s entry into the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a treaty not yet ratified by the United States – the closure is, at minimum, a tangible signal of goodwill.

Even as the message was being sent, however, President Trump stole the show, abruptly – without notifying Seoul, and reportedly blindsiding his own State Department – turning his back on the summit. The trigger, according to his personally-dictated letter to Kim, was a May 23 statement by the North’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son-Hui, one of Kim’s few senior female advisers, assailing stupid” and “ignorant,” “unbridled” and “impudent” remarks by US Vice President Mike Pence, a “political dummy” with the nerve to suggest “North Korea might end like Libya,” i.e. ‘rewarded’ for its disarmament (as was Iraq) by Western intervention and regime change.

North Korea's Kim Jong-un shakes hands with South Korea's Moon Jae-in across the demarcation line separating their countries. 27 April 2018 (Image via Youtube channel)

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un shakes hands with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in across the demarcation line separating their countries. 27 April 2018 (Image via Youtube channel)

Choe was half-right: on May 21 Pence, echoing recent comments by National Security Advisor John ‘Blowtorch’ Bolton, did say “this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal” to “dismantle his nuclear weapons and to do so by peaceable means.” The clear suggestion, however is that if the North disarms like Libya in 2004 – itself a dubious technical suggestion, as Libya was nowhere near actually having a Bomb – it will not be destroyed like Libya was seven years later. As President Trump stated on May 17, unlike Gadhafi, Kim will “get protections that are very strong,” though he followed the reassurance with a threat: “That model will take place if we don’t make a deal. Most likely…”

Such distinctions, unsurprisingly, proved too fine for Choe, who insisted Pyongyang “will not beg for dialogue,” and that “whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at a nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon [its] decision and behavior.” But, she warned:

We can also make the US taste an appalling tragedy it has never experienced or imagined before.

To which Trump, in his cancellation statement, retorted:

Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place. You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.


Trump released his letter in the middle of the Korean night. The next morning, the remarkable international peace group Women Cross DMZ, consisting of “Nobel Peace Laureates, feminist authors, peace activists, human rights lawyers, professors, former parliamentarians, faith leaders, humanitarian aid workers, filmmakers, artists, a retired Army Colonel and a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom,” issued a statement eloquently registering the shock of the blow: “Today, 80 million Korean hearts across the Peninsula are broken by the news of the cancellation of the June 12 Summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim. But the drive for peace by the people of both North Korea and South Korea is unstoppable.” “Peace,” the group’s founder, Christine Ahn, insisted, “isn’t just up to two men. It’s up to the people and the leaders of North and South Korea, and that peace train has long left the station.”

Women Cross DMZ Photo by Stephen Wunrow.

Women Cross DMZ. Photo by Stephen Wunrow.

The statement’s conclusion, that a “return to a rhetoric of nuclear annihilation and destruction is unacceptable,” was echoed in the response of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for their leadership in efforts to negotiate the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty: “This cancellation,” they argued, particularly coming so close after his “unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Deal” – the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) dramatically curtailing and verifiably guaranteeing the peaceful nature of Tehran’s nuclear program – “shows once more that the world can’t blindly trust Donald Trump to ensure world peace. But the future of the Korean Peninsula:

…does not belong to Trump. South Korea’s strategic diplomatic overtures have achieved far more than posturing and threatening tweets. Today’s demolition of the nuclear test site at Punggye-Ri shows that North Korea is taking steps forward towards disarmament. There is still a path to denuclearisation through multilateral diplomacy: North and South Korea could still join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [TPNW] and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula for good.

Outlining his new ‘Agenda for Disarmament’ at the University of Geneva, UN Secretary General Guterres lamented the summit cancellation and urged a prompt return to “dialogue to find a path to the peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Guterres endorsed the far grander goal encoded “in the DNA of the United Nations,” the peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of the planet, “strong international support for which” was vividly “demonstrated” by the adoption of the TPNW by 122 states, two thirds of UN membership, last July. Though the Agenda takes aim at “all weapons, from hand grenades to hydrogen bombs,” its starkest warning – that we stand “one mechanical, electronic or human error away from a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities from the map” – sets the Korean crisis in its true, global perspective: what will happen to the world order, the world economy, the human race, the day after ‘the appalling tragedy?’

Dizzyingly, within 24 hours of Trump’s cancellation, the Singapore Summit, so nearly sabotaged by the zero-sum ‘vision’ of hawks on both sides, began to be set shakily back on track. There is no practical reason it should not now result in agreement on a two-, three- or five-year framework plan to denuclearize the policies, postures and capabilities of all powers in the region, finally replacing the terrifying, 65-year limbo of the 1953 Korea War Armistice with ‘permanent peace’ agreements backed by mutual non-aggression pacts and deep conventional cuts.

Given the tortuous route to the summit, it is difficult to believe such a glorious prospect is truly within reach. But as Paris students imagining a better world 50 years ago put it:

Sous les paves, la plage!

Under the paving, the beach…


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.