Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula is emerging at a breakneck pace. The recent inter-Korean summit was uncharted territory for the formerly reclusive and hostile Kim Jong-un, who just four years ago threatened to turn South Korean Baengnyeong Island into a “sea of fire.” Spectators have witnessed Kim move away from a promise to “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard [Donald Trump] with fire” toward an increased willingness to engage in first-person diplomacy, suggesting the birth of a benign and benevolent era for the Hermit Kingdom. At face value, at least.
Upon further interrogation, nearly every diplomatic action has been accompanied by numerous suspicious caveats. Due to this, and the pressure to produce headline-worthy claims, Northeast Asian scholars have split into two increasingly polarized camps: the optimists, who take Kim at his word, and perceive each concession as a sincere step towards finding security without nuclear weapons, and the skeptics, who consider each concession to be a calculated maneuver to buy Kim, and his most loyal supporters, more time.
So, which camp has it right? Recent developments can be, and have been, construed many ways. Take, for example, Kim’s declaration to close the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, announced on April 20. At first, this was hailed by many as a dramatic and promising concession. But within minutes, cynics were chiming in: the proclamation did not address North Korea’s existing weapon stockpile, and furthermore, was being used to bolster North Korea’s status as a de facto nuclear state. The next day, a Washington Post op-ed by Max Boot, a hardened skeptic, titled “North Korea is conning Donald Trump yet again,” noted that the test site may be close to collapsing anyway, due to repeated nuclear explosions, and that Kim’s father made a similar concession in 2008 by blowing up the cooling tower of a nuclear facility to demonstrate that he was ready to negotiate, when in fact, he was not.
On April 23, an article by 38North refuted Boot’s claim, pointing to satellite imagery of additional tunnel systems that may have kept the site operable. On April 28, Kim gallantly offered U.S. and South Korean experts permission to oversee the dismantlement of Punggye-ri in May, and later that day, President Moon Jae-in’s office released a comment from Kim, rebutting the assertion that the test site was unusable, and confirming that there were two additional tunnels with access to the site that were still in good condition. After all this flip-flopping, Punggye-ri is left an enigma. It is still unclear whether this is a concession made in earnest, or a manipulative tactic involving the closure of a barely-operational site.
But nothing about this is surprising. Kim, who like his predecessors is most concerned with survival, is attempting a cost-benefit analysis of grand proportions. He is most likely taking advantage of high-level negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea to “go shopping” — as Political Analyst Robert Kelly from Busan University phrased it — for a security arrangement that provides him a better (or, more prolonged) chance of survival. Until the very moment Kim believes he has secured a viable security arrangement, he must hedge his bets and maximize his bargaining power by touting the strength of his nuclear arsenal. Diplomacy without “teeth” has no bite.
In the months to come, we should expect to see more concessions from Kim that simultaneously serve as confidence-building measures and validate his leverage. Rather than allowing this to feed one bias or another, it is crucial to recognize this dual nature — to outright reject that Kim might consider abandoning his nuclear weapons program disregards the prevailing abject conditions of his disillusioned citizens and crippled economy under sanctions, while wholly accepting that Kim is eager to do so is flagrantly ignorant of history.
The diplomatic war is ongoing. Kim has yet to irreversibly concede anything that was not guaranteed by prior agreements, except for a mere conciliatory gesture to align North Korea’s time zone with that of the South. As new developments emerge, however, they must be scrupulously analyzed, just as Punggye-ri has been, and impartially picked apart for clues of Kim’s true motives. Meanwhile, policymakers must continue to tactfully respond to concessions in an attempt to pressure — if not corner — Kim into peacefully committing to complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Samuel Curtis is a research assistant at the DPRK Strategic Research Center at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan.