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Negotiations with Pyongyang: Are We Ready for This Uphill Battle?

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un speaks at the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea conference, October 2017. (Korean Central News Agency/via Reuters)
Pyongyang is not going to make negotiations easy for us.

To many Korea watchers, the DPRK’s about-face in recent months and the subsequent diplomatic “breakthroughs” lend the perception that this time Pyongyang is dead-on serious in its commitment to staying on course toward a peaceful resolution on the Korean Peninsula. Naïve or not, the perception is not completely unwarranted — after more than 60 years of hostilities, the Kim regime’s altered behavior, albeit sudden, gives us a modicum of hope that, this time, surely things will be different with North Korea. Such hope seems to stem not from a fact-based observation of recent developments, however, but from an emotion-laden anticipation of seeing a long-awaited deal come to fruition.

To Pyongyang’s credit, the Kim regime has been sending what could easily be interpreted as encouraging signals. To judge from the media portrayal of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the North, the Pompeo–Kim meeting ended on a good note — his trip wrapped up with the DPRK’s release of three Korean Americans who had been detained in the country on espionage charges for several years. Kim’s landmark summit last month with South Korean president Moon Jae-in gave the entire world high hopes that soon North Korea’s denuclearization — what is considered to be the most critical piece in completing the puzzle to peace on the Peninsula — would be achieved.

Prospects for peace, however diaphanous, and the flurry of diplomatic activities between Pyongyang and its two main counterparts, Washington and Seoul, create the impression that a peace-resolution construct on the Korean Peninsula is imminent. And because the limelight has been heavily focused on the U.S., DPRK, and South Korea, the remaining regional stakeholders — Japan, China, and, to a lesser extent, Russia — are also involving themselves in this complex puzzle, driven by concerns of being left out in what could be milestone negotiations with far-reaching implications.

But to the circumspect and skeptical, something seems amiss. We’re moving too fast. It’s been only two weeks since the inter-Korean summit, but the U.S. and other countries are already hinting at an easing of sanctions on the regime and at integrating the DPRK into a broader regional economic framework. Long before the U.S. has sealed a workable deal with North Korea, long before we observe Pyongyang taking constructive, measurable, and consistent steps toward some shade of denuclearization, and long before Kim has even made a clearly defined promise to relinquish his nuclear program under a set timeframe, with trackable, measurable, and verifiable progress, we have painted ourselves eager and shown too many of our cards to a country that has proven over and over again to be unreliable and unpredictable.

South Korea, for its part, has outlined a three-part “roadmap to peace on the Korean Peninsula” — a denuclearization agreement, declaration of the end of the Korean War, and, last, a peace agreement. Simplification of the complex, multilayered North Korea problem into a tidy three-step approach gives credence to the notion that we are actually making progress in talks with the Kim regime. For Seoul, a well-packaged, neat solution presents to the South Korean population a trustworthy Moon administration capable of achieving what previous presidencies in both Washington and Seoul have ad nauseam attempted without success. From a domestic and foreign-policy standpoint, this is a win–win for Moon.

Inter-Korean relations are clearly a top-priority agenda item for the Moon administration, not only because of the ruling party’s pro–North Korea stance but also because momentum, focus, and breakthrough on this front could create a presidential legacy for Moon. That the Blue House decided to pursue engagement with Pyongyang so early on in Moon’s term indicates his administration’s firm commitment to improving relations with Pyongyang and also dilutes some of the bad rap his administration earned for its handling of former president Park Geun-hye’s corruption charges and ongoing trial, as well as for the ruling party’s tensions with Seoul’s opposition parties.

Notably in Seoul, the post-summit highs and excitement over the prospect of the two Koreas achieving peace and closer ties have muddied fact with illusion. Kim’s theatrics during his meeting with President Moon Jae-in, coupled with the optimistic and almost simplified portrayal of the interaction between the two leaders in South Korean mainstream media, conveyed a message of unbridled hope, giving the impression that a deal had actually been reached between the two countries. At the summit, Moon gave his northern counterpart a USB drive containing a blueprint for inter-Korean economic cooperation that could link Pyongyang to China, Russia, and Europe through trade and trains — all this long before the terms of North Korea’s denuclearization were even discussed.

In the summit atmospherics of pomp and circumstance, the complex, uncomfortable truth was glossed over: that Kim remained reluctant to make any sort of transparent, measurable, committal statement about denuclearization.

In the days immediately following the Moon–Kim meeting, South Korean media were quick to focus heavily on opportunities for economic and cultural cooperation between the two Koreas, almost as if the longstanding security and existential issues impeding progress toward peace on the Korean Peninsula had been completely hashed out at the summit. Interestingly, South Korean mainstream media failed to mention two fairly large-scale conservative protests in Seoul that took place around the same time as the inter-Korean talks. Seoul police cordoned off an entire section in the central part of the city for the demonstrations. Participants from all provinces nationwide gathered to voice their dissatisfaction with the Moon administration’s domestic policies and its far too accommodating treatment of the North Korean delegation during the inter-Korean talks.

In the summit atmospherics of pomp and circumstance, the complex, uncomfortable truth was glossed over: that Kim remained reluctant to make any sort of transparent, measurable, committal statement about denuclearization. That there was no direct mention of, or even an allusion to, some actual steps Pyongyang would take to denuclearize or comply with international demands to end the regime’s tactics of provocation and extortion was hardly addressed or questioned in mainstream South Korean media. It seemed Seoul had forgotten that just months earlier, Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s address boasted that the DPRK had entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an ICBM, and that he had extolled his country’s accomplishment of perfecting its nuclear forces and of attaining Pyongyang’s strategic goal with success.

Subsequent to the inter-Korean talks, preparations for the U.S.–DPRK summit are taking place under a contracted timeline. We’ve bypassed preliminary meetings between working-level decision-makers who usually lay the groundwork for summits; we also have yet to see as much multilateral diplomatic activity among regional stakeholders in the lead-up to the U.S.–DPRK talks as we saw in recent months. In essence, preparations for the Trump–Kim summit have taken on the character and operating styles of both leaders — unconventional, unpredictable, and not beholden to any protocol or custom. And given the historic proportions of the meeting and its implications, there hasn’t been a shortage of speculation on possible outcomes.

The inter-Korean summit set the pace and tone for the upcoming Trump–Kim meeting. Fortunately, this means that much of the preparatory legwork has already been done by Seoul, allowing Washington to focus on the substance — laying out a tight, coherent, and well-executed strategy in dealing with a very tough negotiation counterpart. At the same time, the Moon administration has painted an all too rosy backdrop for what is going to be a long, protracted, complicated haul of negotiations, creating the risk that we would naïvely let down our guard and be pawned even before the Trump–Kim talks take place.

Pyongyang will attempt to extort as many concessions as possible from its counterparts before it takes even a small step toward trivial compromises.

In his inter-Korean summit speech, Kim warned that the path to a unified Korea would not be pretty. For the record: “There may be winds along the way, and even failure and setbacks. But there is no victory without pain, and no glory without setbacks.” This message, while intended for the North and South Korean audience, is also a bellwether of what’s to come for the U.S., South Korea, and other regional stakeholders engaging with the DPRK. If Washington and Seoul are serious about bringing Kim back to the negotiating table to hammer out an agreement and ensure that North Korea is held accountable for its end of the deal, then they should not take its forewarning lightly.

Pyongyang is not going to make negotiations easy for us; it will attempt to extort as many concessions and reprieves as possible from its counterparts before it takes even a small step toward trivial compromises. Left completely unguarded, we may fall flat on our face and be dragged through the mud by a nuclear-armed Kim regime.

Are we ready for this long haul?

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation, and propaganda.

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