National Security & Defense

With North Korea, This Time Is Different

South Korean President Moon Jae-in walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talk during a summit at the truce village in Panmunjom, April 27, 2018. (Korean Summit Press Pool/via Reuters)
Though still unlikely, a real agreement is possible.

Looks like they did it again.

After a series of positive gestures — meeting with South Korea, expressing openness to denuclearization, releasing U.S. prisoners — North Korea has returned to form. Kim Jong-un suspended talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel his upcoming meeting with Donald Trump, criticizing regularly scheduled U.S.–South Korea military exercises.

This shift suggests that Kim is employing the same bait-and-switch strategy as his father. It goes like this:

(1) Build up military capabilities, test weapons, and issue threats, aiming for a bribe.

(2) Promise to suspend nuclear or missile development in exchange for economic aid, always intending to carry on in secret.

(3) Eventually get caught and then run the play again from the beginning, each time with a more powerful arsenal.

Phase 1 culminated in 2017, with 16 ballistic-missile launches and a thermonuclear test.

Phase 2 began with North Korea’s “charm offensive” at the Winter Olympics in February, and accelerated in April when Kim crossed the DMZ for a dramatic photo-op with South Korean president Moon Jae-in.

It’s a positive sign, but previous South Korean presidents got meetings and photo-ops with Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in 2000 and again in 2007. They went nowhere. And that’s probably what North Korea intended, manipulating the South’s desire for peace to stall and get economic aid while continuing to develop weapons.

As the New York Times’ Bret Stephens quipped, “Kim Jong-un has a peace bridge he’d like to sell you.”

But what if this time is different? Perhaps North Korea accepts that it’s not going to take over the South, and wants stability and normalization instead. Under that logic, Kim aims to end North Korea’s pariah status, remove sanctions, and increase his chances of survival by reaching an understanding with South Korea and the United States. The only way to do that is a deal. A real one.

With North Korea’s isolation, few really know what it wants, and it would be naïve to assume Kim is open to a deal now. However, enough has changed that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility.

Signs of Change
There are three important differences since the last North Korean outbreak of diplomacy:

1  —  Kim Jong-un
These are the first negotiations involving the current leader.

Kim Jong-il died in December 2011. Since then, Kim Jong-un has consolidated power domestically. In 2013 he killed his influential uncle in a public square with an anti-aircraft cannon.

Kim also killed his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in February 2017. Two women approached Kim Jong-nam in a Malaysian airport and smeared something on his face. After getting arrested, one of the suspects claimed she thought it was a prank, and the substance was baby oil. It was actually VX, a deadly nerve agent.

Eliminating possible threats to his rule means Kim Jong-un can cut a deal if he wants to. A weak leader has to worry if hardliners will try to usurp him if he makes concessions. Kim, however, appears to be in full control of his country.

The younger Kim learned from his father, but his father is dead. Maybe Kim Jong-un will turn out exactly like Kim Jong-il. But maybe he won’t.

And he isn’t his father. While Kim Jong-il became the leader of North Korea when he was 53, Kim Jong-un is still in his mid-30s (North Korean, South Korean, and American records disagree on his exact age). He’s looking forward to decades of rule and trying to figure out the best way to secure that future.

The younger Kim learned from his father, but his father is dead. Maybe Kim Jong-un will turn out exactly like Kim Jong-il. But maybe he won’t.

2  —  They Have Nukes Now
The assumption that North Korea is trying to stall  (again)  fails to consider what it was stalling for.

Decades of defiance in the face of threats, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and punishing sanctions were all for this: North Korea has nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach American cities.

In theory, this means the North Koreans have a valuable chip to trade away. More likely it means, for the first time, they feel secure. They finally have the one thing that demands respect.

According to South Korea’s secretary for public affairs, Kim told President Moon: “I know the Americans are inherently disposed against us, but when they talk with us, they will see that I am not the kind of person who would shoot nuclear weapons to the south, over the Pacific, or at the United States.”

North Korea’s indignant statement this week denounced America’s “one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes” but did not cut off the possibility of a fair exchange.

This sounds like someone trying to present himself as a responsible leader of a nuclear-armed country  —  a country the world could accept as a nuclear-weapons state, however reluctantly. Like Maoist China. Or Pakistan.

3  —  Donald Trump
No matter your opinion of Trump, do you think the chances that the United States will attack North Korea have gone up since he replaced Obama?

So does everyone else.

Maybe North Korea, South Korea, China, and Japan think Trump’s threats were empty. But they can’t be sure. No one knows how much is calculated “madman theory” diplomacy, how much is reality-show bluster, and how much is an actual willingness to attack.

This could play out to America’s advantage if it makes Kim more open to concessions, or China more willing to pressure North Korea. Or it could hurt America’s position if it primarily makes South Korea nervous and desperate for a deal. Either way, it changes the dynamic.

High-Wire Diplomacy
Another thing that’s different is Trump’s willingness to meet directly with Kim. But he’s simultaneously setting expectations too high and too low.

The president trumpeted the Moon–Kim meeting, Kim’s pro-negotiation statements, and North Korea’s temporary halt to weapons testing as if they were grand achievements. His supporters insist a Nobel Peace Prize is in the bag, with one Fox commentator declaring that Trump already deserves two.

This celebration is premature.

Negotiations indicate the possibility of achievement, and they’re better than war, but they’re not much on their own. North and South Korean leaders have met before. Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, met with Kim Jong-il, much as Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met with Kim Jong-un. George W. Bush held the Six Party Talks with North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. All these negotiations ended up playing into North Korea’s stalling strategy.

For example, in September 2005, the Six Party Talks produced an official joint statement in which North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and the United States promised it had “no intention to attack or invade [North Korea] with nuclear or conventional weapons.” One year later, North Korea tested its first bomb.

Circumstances have changed enough that new negotiations could lead to a different result. But they haven’t changed that much, and it’s a mistake to declare victory before talks even take place.

They haven’t agreed to denuclearization, and almost certainly won’t.

For decades, North Korea has offered, on and off, to suspend weapons testing during talks. Not coincidentally, they tend to make this offer when their programs plateau.

In 2017 North Korea launched its first ICBM and exploded its first thermonuclear bomb. It’s possible they don’t have anything else to test.

Additionally, the North’s underground nuclear-testing site may have collapsed, making further tests impossible. Suspending tests  —  which they can always restart  —  and promising to destroy their already-destroyed testing site are not significant concessions.

But Trump is touting them as significant, while also setting the bar for his meeting with Kim at a peace treaty and denuclearization.

This erratic expectations-setting increases the likelihood of two dangerous scenarios:

1. Trump, having already declared a Nobel-worthy achievement, will make concessions without getting anything substantial in return. Then he can say he made a deal, trusting his supporters will proclaim its greatness, no matter the details.

2. Trump, frustrated that North Korea’s openness to denuclearization was a ploy, leaves the talks with nothing. Having devoted so much personal credibility to the claim that acting tough wins concessions  —  that it had already won concessions  —  he fears looking weak and orders an attack, leading to a costly war.

Kim almost certainly won’t follow through on his threats to cancel the June 12 summit with Trump. Sitting down with the American president — something his father and grandfather sought, but never achieved — brings too much prestige.

However, despite these dangers, there’s also a historic opportunity.

Making a Deal
Kim almost certainly won’t follow through on his threats to cancel the June 12 summit with Trump. Sitting down with the American president — something his father and grandfather sought, but never achieved — brings too much prestige. Whether he’ll negotiate in good faith remains an open question.

According to South Korea, at the April 26 meeting with Moon, Kim said: “If we meet often and build trust with the United States and if an end to the war and nonaggression are promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?”

Sounds promising. But what does he mean by “end to the war” and “nonaggression”?

Optimists claim Kim might agree to complete and verifiable denuclearization in exchange for a formal peace treaty and a promise not to attack. But that’s unlikely.

For North Korea, “an end to the war” probably requires the United States to withdraw forces from South Korea. China would support as much of that as possible, starting with the THAAD missile-defense system. And Kim met with Chinese president Xi Jinping in China twice over the last two months, indicating strategic coordination.

“Meet often and build trust” indicates that the North wants to see a period of normalized relations before it will consider denuclearizing. In this light, Kim and Moon’s joint promise to pursue a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons is a hope for the future, not a near-term expectation.

Similarly, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires nuclear-weapons states to “pursue negotiations in good faith . . . on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” The U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, and China haven’t done that, and North Korea won’t either.

Kim knows the United States overthrew Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, neither of whom had nukes. He’s not about to trade away the one thing that can ensure his survival, no matter how much sanctions damage his economy.

But that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to peace. It would just have to be a peace that North Korea can trust, secure behind a nuclear deterrent.

If we assume Kim Jong-un wants peace  —  rather than economic aid in return for disingenuous promises  —  then his main goals are:

1. International acceptance as a de facto nuclear-weapons state outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, like Israel, India, and Pakistan.

2. Non-interference on internal matters, especially pertaining to human rights.

North Korea will probably argue that normalized relations should prompt American withdrawal from South Korea. But that’s the main goal of the old deception strategy, and less necessary as a condition for peace. Trust-building measures, such as halting border-probing flights and annual military exercises, would probably be enough, at least for now.

Trust-building measures, such as halting border-probing flights and annual military exercises, would probably be enough, at least for now.

If Kim is pulling his father’s trick, then Trump should walk away. But if Kim is open to peace and Trump can get significant concessions in return, he should seriously consider it.

The United States would need a lot more than promises. For example:

  • Freeze the nuclear program, give up fissile material not already inside a warhead, and reduce capacity to create bomb fuel.
  • Allow intrusive inspections to verify compliance.
  • Detail black-market activity, providing evidence on any clients. (Syria is a prime suspect).
  • Pledge not to test nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles, with sanctions automatically reimposed for any violation.
  • All North Korean commitments guaranteed by China.

Denuclearization and democracy are the ultimate hope. But the real choice is between a nuclear-armed, repressive North Korea under heavy international pressure and a nuclear-armed, repressive North Korea at peace with the South.

The United States lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and still lives with a nuclear Russia and China. India lives with a nuclear Pakistan. The international community already lives with a nuclear North Korea, no matter how loudly it insists it can’t. The North is deterrable, just like the others.

Similarly, the United States places greater importance on geopolitics than on stopping human-rights violations in both allies (Saudi Arabia) and competitors (China).

The smart move for North Korea was always to acquire nuclear weapons. Every promise to stop pursuing them was a lie. But now that it has them  —  along with a new leader, an unconventional American president, and a peace-seeking president in South Korea  —  it might actually want a deal.

NOW WATCH: ‘North Korea Bashes Trump Administration’

Nicholas Grossman — Nicholas Grossman is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois and an editor at large of Arc Digital.

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