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February 21, 2019

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An ‘undeclared’ North Korean missile base? You don’t say …

The revelation of another “undeclared” North Korean missile base should send shock waves through all those concerned about the safety and security of the region, notably South Korea. Actually, however, it’s hard to find ordinary people too worried about the latest report by esteemed experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The reasons for such widespread insouciance are familiar to all of us who have been following the ups and downs of the North Korean nuclear threat for the past few years or decades. The overwhelming sense is that it can’t happen here, that Kim Jong Un may posture all he wants, but honestly he’s not going to press the button on one of those things and send it hurtling into space carrying a real live warhead, is he?

The answer to that question is probably not, but then there are other reasons it’s real hard to get people too worked up about just another missile base. We’ve heard all that stuff before. We’re getting missile-and-nuke fatigue. Yes, we know they’ve got these bases, we know they conducted nuclear and missile tests as recently as the year before last, and we don’t seriously trust them to shut down what they’ve got no matter how many summits Kim has with President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in.

But really, those who give more than a moment’s thought to the CSIS report might ask, what’s all the hype about a place named Sino-ri, 212 kilometers north of the Demilitarized Zone, having been “undeclared.” Huh? 

“The Sino-ri base has never been declared by North Korea,” declare the indisputably knowledgeable Victor Cha, Joseph Bermudez and Lisa Collins near the beginning of their “expose” of the base. Nor, they add ominously, does it “appear to be the subject of denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea.”

These bases, they tell us, “would presumably have to be subject to declaration, verification and dismantlement in any final and fully verifiable denuclearization deal.”

Those naughty North Koreans! Imagine them not letting everyone know about that base — one of about 20, we’re told, that they’ve never “declared.” Look, seriously, this news is interesting, but you don’t have to be a certified expert to know the North Koreans not only haven’t declared a lot of what they’ve got, what they’re doing, what they’ve done and will do, but have not the slightest intention of doing so.

None of which means President Donald Trump should simply say, “Mr. Kim, much though I ‘love’ you, I’m damned if I’m gonna sit down with you again if you don’t come clean with me.”

Nor does it mean President Moon should say to Kim, “If you don’t answer all those crazy questions the Americans keep bothering you with, how can I welcome you in Seoul or guarantee you won’t have to hear the shouts of the flag-waving rightists who hate both of us?”

But how could Trump and Moon not make a huge issue of these secret “undeclared” bases whenever they meet Kim again? Well, maybe they should, but there’s a deeper issue. Talks, negotiations, take on a life of their own. There’s something to be said for momentum. It’s not that North Korea will ever give up the distinction of being the world’s ninth honest-to-goodness nuclear power. It’s obvious they won’t.

It’s just as obvious Kim isn’t going to fire or explode anything for real. He knows perfectly well all hell would descend on him if he did. Less obvious, more difficult to explain, is that these summits add to the dynamism of incipient change. Beneath the seeming non-concern lingers a sense that South Korea is too enormous, too huge an industrial powerhouse, and North Korea is really too needy.

Something’s got to give. The dam on inter-Korean relations has to burst. Millions are looking to the North, waiting for the opening to get in there. Some are eagerly eyeing real estate north of Seoul, up to the DMZ, as a base for future operations. In the meantime, as long as the Americans and South Koreans don’t make stupid concessions, fall for showy appearances such as an end-of-war declaration or, God forbid, a “peace treaty,” summitry is needed to keep up the momentum.

That’s reason enough for these leaders to talk to each other even if one of them insists on draining his economy and resources with useless nukes and missiles while begging for all the help he can get.

Donald Kirk has been a columnist for the Korea Times and South China Morning Post, among other newspapers and magazines. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.