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A North Korean Gordian Knot: Undoing the Nuclear Link

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Trans-Pacific View

A North Korean Gordian Knot: Undoing the Nuclear Link

Insights from Soo Kim.

A North Korean Gordian Knot: Undoing the Nuclear Link

South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong shakes hands with Kim Jong-un during a meeting in Pyongyang (March 6, 2018)

Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Soo Kim – former intelligence officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in leadership intentions, nuclear proliferation, and propaganda analysis – is the 133rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain “Gordian knot” in the context of the North Korea imbroglio.

The expression describes an extremely difficult problem solved easily through creative thinking or bold, decisive action. Seoul’s Blue House officials have recently used this metaphor to draw a parallel to the current standoff with North Korea. An apt comparison, as it conveys the complexity of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea] dilemma and reflects our cautious, reined-in optimism in finding that one-fell-swoop solution to undo the decades-long tension with Pyongyang.

With simmering tensions punctuated by two upcoming high-level dialogues – the inter-Korean summit in April followed by the Trump-Kim face-to-face in May – expectations for a fruitful outcome from these meetings are in suspense. The flurry of diplomatic activity in the lead-up to these meetings, including the recent announcement that representatives from the DPRK, South Korea, and the U.S. will be meeting in Finland for Track 1.5 talks, reflects the anticipatory mood of stakeholders. Yet, the odds of arriving at a clean fix to undo the Gordian knot à la North Korea seem just as uncertain.

Identify the critical link in this knot.

The key, as expressed by South Korean officials, is in “cutting the biggest link,” which would then set free the remaining entangled knots. Indisputably, the biggest, most critical link is Pyongyang’s nuclear program – the regime’s all-powerful bargaining chip and reason for existence. The threat of a nuclear attack has been the Kim regime’s single most effective coercive and negotiating tool; it can be used any time, at any occasion. Bluster or credible, nuclear weapons capabilities have unfailingly served in extracting concessions from the international community, attracting media attention, and providing the DPRK with a sense of legitimacy. Considering the versatility and potency of nuclear threat capabilities, it comes as no surprise that Pyongyang has held out on giving up this arsenal for over a half century.

Most recently, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha portrayed North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization as merely a part of the grand vision of a lasting, permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Kang’s comments, while taken in good faith, shifts our long-focused lens away from the nuclear issue, and in effect downplays the seriousness and imminence of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat capabilities. To restate, the purpose of the inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK summits is to hammer out steps for the Kim regime to follow through on its “willingness” to denuclearize. Should this shifted framework be applied to the upcoming talks, we could be setting ourselves up for some unintended consequences. Our greatest apprehension: the U.S. and South Korea relent to concessions prior to the North taking any credible and verifiable steps toward denuclearization, and North Korea walks away with a generous, undeserved aid package – plus an added bonus of its nuclear program remaining intact.

Describe a scenario in which North Korea pursues denuclearization.  

The indispensability of nuclear capabilities to North Korea’s existence and survivability can be re-emphasized when we consider a scenario in which the Kim regime takes constructive steps to follow through on denuclearization. If the North renounces its nuclear and missile programs, there would be no confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul and Tokyo’s perception of Pyongyang as a national security threat would be reduced; Seoul’s dependence on U.S. troops to back up its military and defense readiness in the event of an outbreak along the demilitarized zone would be much more relaxed; the Kim dynasty would not be able to barter the lives and rights of its citizens for international economic concessions for regime survivability. If the North renounces its nuclear and missile programs, it will only be a matter of time [until] we settle the remaining tangential issues pertaining to the Kim regime – its atrocious human rights record, illicit trade and financial transactions, complicity in acts of terrorism by hostile states, and cybercrimes.

How should Washington and Seoul handle this Gordian knot?

Evidently, the toughest link in the Gordian knot will not come undone so easily, as it defeats the purpose of the riddle –  the North has much to lose by giving up its nuclear arsenal. Denuclearization is akin to jettisoning Kim Jong-un’s lifeline and forever bargaining token. As tempting as it may be to pursue bold, decisive measures to slay this persistent, tenacious knot – particularly under this time crunch — Washington, Seoul, and other parties should cautiously proceed in the months ahead, discerning North Korea’s olive branch extension and intent to denuclearize with a grain of skepticism.

Surmise Pyongyang’s current calculation/miscalculation.

Interestingly, the DPRK has yet to issue a public statement in response to President Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s summit invitation; we’ve also yet to see North Korea’s response to the recent announcement of the resumption of the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills. Laying low and keeping mum are, as we know, a tactic Pyongyang employs to hold us in suspense. In addition, even for Kim, two summits back-to-back – including one with his archrival – is a pretty big deal. Kim’s probably using this time to re-center himself, calculate and mentally play out possible moves in the lead-up to and during the negotiations.

If the U.S. and South Korea are intent on concluding the summit meetings with more than just Pyongyang’s conditional, qualified, and noncommittal agreement on denuclearization – which would be no different from the previous summits  – we need to once again remind ourselves that the DPRK will not easily give up its nuclear card, for its inherent and existential value to the survival of the Kim regime. Complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization will come with a heavy price. All sides have been made aware of this; Washington and Seoul should thus deflate any unrealistic hopes and anticipate a condition-laden, tentative guarantee of rehabilitated steps from their North Korean counterparts before reaching the threshold for a pledge to denuclearize.

After all, it wouldn’t be called a Gordian knot if it’s easily undoable.