Recently we have witnessed a series of historic firsts or potential firsts in inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations. The February 10 Blue House visit by Kim Yo-jong (younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Worker’s Party of Korea) marked the first time a member of the Kim family had traveled to South Korea since the Korean War.
On March 5, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s own delegation, led by National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, met with Kim Jong-un in the headquarters of the Korean Worker’s Party. This was the first time South Korean officials had ever entered the headquarters of Pyongyang’s most important political institution, and signaled a break from Kim Jong-un’s previously limited encounters with foreign guests. If, as both sides announced, a third inter-Korean summit does occur at Panmunjeom in late April, it would be the first time any North Korean leader has set foot on South Korea’s side of the de facto border since the Korean War.
Even more remarkable was yesterday’s news. After traveling to Washington to brief President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Chung told reporters assembled outside the White House that Kim had extended an invitation to Trump for their own summit meeting. Reportedly, Trump accepted and will meet Kim by the end of May. If so, this will be the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
Also notable is the seeming shift in Pyongyang’s diplomatic position regarding both its own weaponry and the U.S.-South Korea alliance. According to South Korean officials, Kim expressed a willingness to start negotiations with the United States on denuclearization in return for security guarantees, accepted joint U.S.-ROK military drills as a reality, and told them he would suspend all nuclear and missile tests while such talks were underway.
However, despite these historic firsts and apparent shifts on the part of Pyongyang, there are reasons to be skeptical
First, as I examined in an article for Washington Post, North Korea’s latest overture could easily be seen as an example of a long-established pattern, namely, its use of highly refined tactical flexibility in achieving its aims and objectives. This flexibility is rooted in the nature of the North Korean state and the Kim family regime as well as the profoundly constrained international environment in which it operates.
North Korea has been explicit about its fundamental aims, which have been enshrined in its constitution and repeated countless times both in its internal and external pronouncements. These aims are to consolidate the revolutionary achievements in the north, and complete the revolution and liberate the people in the south. The latter may be the ultimate (if still distant) goal, but it presupposes and necessitates the former. Put simply, without the survival of the North Korean state, underpinned by the complete authority of the Kim family regime, reunification on Pyongyang’s terms can never be achieved.
In pursuit of these fundamental aims, Pyongyang seeks numerous near-term objectives. These include: the establishment and retention of unchallenged power within North Korea through a draconian system of sociopolitical and ideological control; the exploitation or creation of political cleavages between South Korea and the United States; undermining unity within the international community on how best to deal with North Korea; and leveraging Pyongyang’s relationships with external powers (friends and enemies alike) to gain economic concessions, diplomatic support, sanctions relief, and much needed food and energy resources, or to buy time to further develop and bolster its military capabilities.
Pyongyang’s tendency to shift suddenly from provocative, even aggressive behavior toward engagement and talks, either with Seoul or Washington or both, is a demonstration of this flexibility. It is just one tactic North Korea utilizes in search of its objectives, and it has done so repeatedly in the past. From this perspective, Kim Jong-un will never give away North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Indeed, the rapid advancement of its nuclear and missile programs provides him more leverage than in the past. Asking for talks from a position of relative strength makes complete sense from Pyongyang’s perspective.
Second, as The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda rightly notes, we do not yet have a breakthrough. Even if one were to assume Pyongyang is serious, there remain several significant pragmatic, definitional, and political obstacles. North Korea itself has not said exactly what it is willing to do (rather, Seoul has been the conduit). Furthermore, Kim’s apparently new offer is not, in fact, new. The discussion and potential trading of North Korean nukes and ballistic missiles for a security guarantee from the United States has been mentioned both by Kim Jong-un and his predecessors.
A series of real questions remain. For instance, what is meant by denuclearization? Is Pyongyang now willing to accept a fundamental U.S. requirement, that is, its complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), and the incredibly invasive inspections regime that would come with it?
Moreover, what exactly are Pyongyang’s demands and what does a security guarantee look like? As Victor Cha asked, does it mean the relaxation of sanctions, normalization of relations with the United States, and a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War? Does it also mean the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea, and the abrogation of the U.S.-ROK alliance?
Next, let us assume (which is far from a safe assumption) that Pyongyang is genuine and willing to accept CVID, and that Trump is willing to accept some or all of the aforementioned demands. Will the U.S. Congress, the foreign policy and national security establishment, and U.S. allies in the region, such as Japan, also accept them? Or is Trump willing to step away from CVID, and, if so, will the overwhelming majority of the U.S. foreign policy establishment follow him (which would be an essential condition to achieve such a shift in the U.S. position)?
How will the talks proceed? Traditionally, summit meetings between a U.S. president and a foreign counterpart, particular an adversary, are only held once the details and difficult negotiations have been settled. Yet, in this instance, the negotiations will take many months (if not years) to complete. At the moment, it is not clear what purpose a Trump-Kim summit will serve, aside from being an unprecedented meeting no previous president dared to hold. Such historic pageantry surely appeals to Trump. Pyongyang, like the rest of us, knows this.
Pragmatically, who will lead the U.S. side in negotiations? Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to Seoul or a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, the official traditionally tasked with helping formulate and implement U.S. policy in the region. Moreover, Joseph Yun, the State Department’s top diplomat in charge of North Korea policy, recently retired without anyone being named as his replacement. Not only does this leave the United States bereft of important expertise, it is a stark contrast to the other side. As Douglas H. Paal, an Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment said, “The State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators,” whereas the North Koreans “will send people with 30 years of experience. This is a real challenge.”
Add to this Trump’s repeated tendency to publically undercut his own secretary of state on North Korea. Several months ago, Trump publicly criticized Secretary Rex Tillerson by saying negotiations with North Korea are useless. Then, yesterday, hours after Tillerson said the United States was far away from talks with North Korea, Trump said he would meet Kim Jong-un in May. A certain level of basic coordination will be required moving forward. Trump has demonstrated, time and again, he is incapable of this.
Lastly, how will Trump’s approach to South Korea affect the process? Only hours before Chung announced the Trump-Kim summit, Trump signed the order imposing import tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. Mexico and Canada were left out of the order, but, despite requesting an exception, South Korea was included. How will the already intense friction over bilateral U.S.-South Korea trade affect alliance unity regarding North Korea? And, if talks fall apart and Trump returns to tweeting “fire and fury,” will President Moon continue to abide by Trump’s inconsistency and blithe disregard for Seoul’s interests? Moon has done his utmost to reduce tensions and foster talks, but there are limits to what he can countenance.
None of this skepticism is meant to detract from the importance of talks with North Korea. If for no other reason than the reduction of tensions and risk of war, the talks are a good thing. In this respect, they should have happened even sooner. However, the key point is that policymakers and the public should be clear-eyed about the obstacles in front of us. Being overly hopeful and getting caught up in the unprecedented developments can set us up for quick and potentially destabilizing reversals when such hopes meet the hard realities ahead.
If talks turn out to fail, which is a distinct possibility, that does not mean the pendulum should swing back to bellicose rhetoric and threats of war. Remaining circumspect and careful now may help prevent just such a reversal later.