While North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics and its cooperation with South Korea are positives, no one should forget Pyongyang has a long history of attempting to manipulate Seoul. On three previous, well documented, occasions, the Kim regime has pursued strategic engagement with South Korea. Generally, North Korea’s motivations for engagement meet one or more of three criteria: it feels threatened by outside events; it is in serious need of aid; or it perceives an opportunity to create tension between South Korea and the United States. Kim Jong-un’s efforts during the 2018 Olympics meet two of these three criteria. Pyongyang’s willingness to increase cooperation with Seoul during the 2018 Winter Olympics is based on North Korea’s need for aid and sanctions relief as well as the perception that tension exists between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump explain. Seoul and the international community should not fall for Kim Jong-un’s propaganda ploy.
Historically, North Korea’s three earlier engagement attempts with South Korea have been motivated by extreme circumstances. First, President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 was a dramatic moment for the Korean Peninsula. North Korea became concerned that a shift in Chinese policies might cost Pyongyang a major patron. North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Il-sung, also believed the U.S. might be retreating from East Asia, leaving South Korea vulnerable. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact as well as increasing international recognition of South Korea, in turn, left North Korea exceedingly vulnerable. The ensuing 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was Kim Il-sung’s attempt to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from the peninsula, thus dramatically reducing the perceived threat from South Korea and its allies. Third, Kim Jong-il used the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (1998-2008) to acquire needed foreign currency and aid. Given tension between South Korea and the U.S. at the time, Kim Jong-il hoped that Seoul might further distance itself from Washington. Clearly, regime survival and the hope that U.S. armed forces may leave the peninsula have, in great part, guided North Korea’s policy toward the South.
Kim Jong-un is using the goodwill stemming from the 2018 Winter Olympics to achieve two goals. His short-term and most pressing concern is food aid and sanctions relief. North Korea requires approximately five million tons of cereal per year. In 2017, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reported that rainfall during the peak growing season was at its lowest level since 2001 when cereal production was only two million tons. In combination with the drought, sanctions may be taking a greater toll than anticipated. The food distribution system, ineffective at best, is now only providing 300 grams of food per person, per day. These pressures may help to explain the increase in North Korean fishing vessels recovered by Japan, with 104 “ghost vessels” in 2017 alone, as they seek to extend their range.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Pyongyang’s second and more long-term goal is to create tension between South Korea and the U.S. During the Sunshine Policy era, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, former presidents of South Korea, sacrificed positive relations with Washington in the hopes of improving relations with Kim Jong-il. It is highly probable that Kim Jong-un may be attempting to lead Moon Jae-in down a similar path today. Given the perceived tension between Presidents Moon and Trump, Kim Jong-un may believe the possibility of serious division between South Korea and the U.S. is possible..
Setting aside the possibility that South Korea might make a request for U.S. military withdrawal or that the U.S. would do so unilaterally, why would North Korea prioritize this action? To date, North Korea’s leadership blames its failure to reunite the peninsula on the U.S. presence in the South. The Kim regime believes South Korea lacks conviction and, therefore, can be broken. Since 1953, Pyongyang has argued that U.S. forces saved South Korea’s oppressive puppet regime in Seoul during the Korean War and that the South Korean people would rebel against that government if it were not propped up thanks to Washington’s support. Drawing parallels between Korea and Vietnam, Kim Il-sung used North Vietnam’s victory over South Vietnam after U.S. armed forces left as further justification of his claims.
For the Kim regime, its failure to reunify Korea can only be explained by outside intervention. Dating back centuries, northern Koreans have been considered more aggressive and rugged—much more militaristic than their southern counterparts. Further, the extreme left in the South Korean political spectrum, sympathetic to communist ideals, has historically been enamored with North Korea. Some have argued that prior to North Korea’s founding in 1948, the intellectual center of communism on the Peninsula was in Seoul—led by Pak Chang-Ok. The Kim regime was able to utilize this sympathetic following during the Korean War and has attempted to provide funding and other means of support ever since. Even once the Korean War ended, Pyongyang repeatedly tried to undermine Seoul’s political credibility through military coercion and extreme-left political parties, such as its support of the Democratic Labor Party. Based on these factors, the Kim regime continues to argue that the U.S. presence is the reason for its failure to reunify the peninsula, and will continue a 30-year process of requesting U.S. forces leave leaving the region.
Kim Jong-un’s post-Olympics goodwill campaign is a gamble intended to prey upon Moon Jae-in’s generosity and desire for progress on reunification, with the nominal goal of food aid and sanctions relief. Seoul must recognize that a repeat of the Sunshine Policy practices—non-conditioned aid to Pyongyang—allows North Korea to continue to neglect its people and to prioritize defense spending. Over the long term, the Kim regime continues to hold out hope that it can find a way to push U.S. armed forces out of South Korea—the critical step in militarily conquering the South to reunify the peninsula. Now the question is how South Korea’s leadership reacts to Kim Jong-un’s new approach of openness and self-serving actions.
Davis Florick is a strategic policy analyst for the Department of Defense. Most recently, he has been detailed to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in support of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Davis is also a James A. Kelly Non-resident Fellow with the Pacific Forum and a Senior Fellow with the Human Security Centre, a think tank based in London. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.