A smiling Kim is now making all kinds of peaceful-sounding initiatives, including suggesting signing an agreement to officially end the Korean War and promising the “denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula.”
If success is enticing the hermit to join the rest of the world and start arms control talks, we have won.
If success involves an end to North Korea’s nuclear program or even pinning a squirming Kim under a heavy international thumb, we probably have lost.
Let’s start with the nuclear side.
Kim, like other Kim’s before him, is not about to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Yes, it is that simple. No matter what Kim and his entourage say, no matter how sincere he appears, he is not going to eliminate his nuclear capability. He may slow development, he may even suspend additional tests and research, but he is not going to denuclearize.
The number one concern for Kim Jung-Un is Kim Jung-Un. The second concern for Kim is the regime and its survival. One thing Kim knows for sure is that his shiny nuclear arsenal is the best guarantee that he can protect those two concerns. Without it, he’s vulnerable. So North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not going anywhere.
Kim keeps talking about getting rid of the nuclear threat on the peninsula. The entire peninsula. Northside and Southside. The solid US-South Korea alliance includes a significant military component and protection for South Korea from the US nuclear arsenal.
When Kim talks about ending the nuclear capabilities on the peninsula, he is far more interested in the Southside than in the Northside. This is a message previously bleated by other North Korean leaders: if the US and South Korea get rid of that pesky nuclear umbrella, and if the threat to North Korea from the South (and the US) dissipates, then maybe North Korea can talk about getting rid of its nuclear capability. Until then, it’s a no go.
North Korea is not looking at doing anything until the US withdraws. This has been the same sentiment expressed by generations of North Korean leaders, and the same belief held by Kim. A North Korean official once explained to a US State Department official, “If you remove those threats, we will feel more secure, and in ten or twenty years’ time we may be able to consider denuclearization. In the meantime, we are prepared to meet with you as one nuclear weapon state with another to discuss arms control.”
On the other hand, Kim has managed to boost his military stockpile since coming to power, so he can afford to take a nuclear breath while preening for the press. Not to mention that his galloping atomic ambitions have exhausted Mount Mantap, the primary testing site, forcing it to shut down.
The bottom line here remains the same: Kim Jung-Un will only give up his nuclear arsenal when troops pry it from his cold dead hands.
So if Kim is not looking to a peaceful non-nuclear future, what exactly is he doing?
Kim is now facing a situation, not unlike one met by his father and grandfather before him. Why not play nice with the West for a while, maybe winning some relief from sanctions which could ease aid and help mitigate some of the grinding poverty inside his country without really giving up anything?
Kim knows this initial good-feeling and photo op period promising a halt in testing is a brief interlude to months and years of painful negotiations. Even if those talks skate along nicely, there are still months and years of the actual process of dismantling.
So, Kim can play the public relations game with little cost.
The other interesting calculation Kim seems to understand is that warming relations with South Korea, using no-nuke vocabulary, and reinforcing fraying ties with China sets the US back on its heels, reducing Washington’s leverage and undercutting tough talk.
If North Korea and South Korea make peace and officially end the Korean War, especially at the same time North Korea pauses its nuclear testing program, Washington will have a difficult time threatening military action against Pyongyang. The tough talk that brought Kim to the table is no longer viable if the world sees him as “behaving.”
Even economic sanctions against North Korea suddenly look limp in this scenario. China is the linchpin in ensuring those sanctions sting, and if Kim is on his charm offensive and wooing President Xi, Beijing could back away from supporting more punishment. China is almost undoubtedly thrilled with reduced tensions on the Korean peninsula and the possibility of fewer US troops, fewer sanctions, and even less frequent military exercises in its backyard. As long as North Korea is advancing China’s goals, it is highly unlikely Beijing will agree to tighten the screws on Kim’s regime.
Anything that forces Kim Jung Un into the light is a good thing. Likewise, any halt to North Korea’s nuclear program has definite benefits, including less chance for a nuclear accident and a reduced possibility of a deranged megalomaniac launching nuclear missiles out of spite or fear.
However, don’t fool yourself into believing that Kim Jung Un is prepping for the Nobel Peace Prize. His well-choreographed public dance is more tricky maneuvering than fearful capitulation. Moreover, anyone who deals with him needs to understand that Kim is not giving in any time soon.