Kim Jong-un’s Peace Gambit

Why any dialogue with the North Korean regime must be pursued with caution.

It appears that the outreach to South Korea by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, which began in the lead-up to and during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, did not end with the Olympics closing ceremony. Kim Jong-un has just hosted talks with a high-level delegation from South Korea, led by its national security director Chung Eui-yong. The South Korean delegation came away believing that these talks have borne some fruit. A possible summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in was discussed, which could occur in late April at the so-called Peace House, which is located on the South Korean side of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone. In the meantime, the two Koreas have reportedly agreed to set up a telephone hotline between the leaders of both countries.

The South Koreans also indicated that North Korea would agree to halt tests of its nuclear weapons and missiles in conjunction with opening talks with the United States on the denuclearization issue. According to Chung Eui-yong, the North Koreans are looking for a credible security guarantee and the end to military threats against it, in which case they believed they would not need to keep their nuclear arsenal. He claimed that North Korea was interested “in an open-ended dialogue to discuss the issue of denuclearization and to normalize relations with North Korea.” Notably, Kim Jong-un is said to have withdrawn, at least for now, his insistence that the United States and South Korea suspend their joint military exercises as a precondition to any negotiations. “Kim Jong-un simply said he could understand why the joint exercises must resume in April on the same scale as before,” Mr. Chung declared. “But he said he expected them to be readjusted if the situation on the Korean Peninsula stabilizes in the future.”

President Trump in the past has criticized the South Koreans for appearing too willing to negotiate with their North Korean counterparts. Last September, for example, the president tweeted, following North Korea’s test of a nuclear bomb, that South Korea’s “talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”  This time, however, President Trump is taking a more measured approach. “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea,” the president tweeted. “For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction.”

On the surface at least, these developments could be construed as hopeful signs that Kim Jong-un finally may be coming to his senses, under the weight of the tightening economic sanctions and possibly in response to behind-the-scenes pressure from North Korea’s most significant trading partner, China. He appeared to turn a new leaf towards “peace” on New Years’ Day with a relatively conciliatory speech, following a year during which the North Korean regime launched 24 missiles and carried out its largest nuclear test to date. However, Kim’s turnaround raises some suspicions as to his true motives. How could this brash dictator, who has insisted repeatedly that nuclear weapons were essential to the survival of his nation, turn on a dime and now express willingness to discuss denuclearization with his arch enemy, the United States?

The answer is that Kim Jong-un’s “peace” offensive may all be part of his latest act, designed to create a wedge between the United States and South Korea and to give China and Russia an excuse to veto any further punitive United Nations Security Council resolutions against North Korea. We have been down the road of diplomacy with North Korea before, only to discover that North Korea banked the economic concessions it received while continuing to pursue its nuclear and missile programs. This time, we can expect demands ranging from some immediate relief on delivery of loosely defined “humanitarian” assistance, and the lifting of all sanctions (think Iran), to insistence on a formal peace treaty under which the United States would be required to pull out its troops from the Korean Peninsula and end the annual joint military exercises with South Korea. 

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats remains skeptical. During a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he expressed doubt that a breakthrough was in the offing. “All efforts in the past have failed and have simply bought North Korea time to achieve what they want to achieve,” he said. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, who is the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was also cautious in his testimony before the same committee. Lt. Gen. Ashley said that Kim Jong-un “shows no interest in walking away from his nuclear or ballistic missile programs,” adding that the North Korean dictator has “pressed his nation down a path to develop nuclear weapons and deliver them with ballistic missiles that can reach South Korea, Japan, Guam and the United States.”

While Kim Jong-un’s peace offensive appears to be working with South Korea and China, Japan is another story. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera of Japan, which has experienced overflights of North Korean missiles in Japan’s airspace, expressed caution. “While talking about nuclear abandonment several times, it turned out that North Korea didn’t halt its nuclear development in the past,” Mr. Onodera remarked. “We need to carefully assess if this North and South dialogue will really lead to the abandonment of nuclear and missile development.”

Kim Jong-un is playing his hand deftly in a gambit to move the dial of international public opinion in his direction as a “world leader” seeking “peace” on the Korean Peninsula. President Trump can see where this all leads while maintaining maximum economic pressure on the North Korean regime and remaining militarily prepared if necessary. Lt. Gen. Ashley hit the right balance when, in response to a question whether President Trump should dismiss the peace initiative being promoted by both North and South Korea or whether the president should follow up, he advised “follow-up with caution.”