The Debate

The U.S.-North Korea Summit: North Korea’s Pragmatism

The summit is hanging in the balance, but a deal might very well be had.

The U.S.-North Korea Summit: North Korea’s Pragmatism
Credit: The White House

On April 27, the leaders of North and South Korea called for peace in the Panmunjom Declaration. The declaration stated that the next North-South Summit would be held this fall. Last week, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of his intention to cancel the U.S.-North Korea Summit, the leaders of North and South Korea met again after a 29-day separation.

Considering the situation last year, efforts to avoid war and try to achieve denuclearization are of course very welcome. In Japan, however, where skepticism of North Korea is very strong, there is very real doubt about the North’s approach to dialogues. It is difficult for Japan to accept the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s regime is attempting to modify its survival strategy.

An analysis of Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, provides a clear picture of the governance style of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. It is also useful for gaining a perspective on the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea moving forward.

Kim Jong-un’s style of governing is characterized by its speed. He has displayed more dramatic policy swings than his father and predecessor Kim Jong-il did, and his mind can change quickly. It is unique to the slogan favored by Kim Jong-un, “at a stretch” (tansume).

Jang Song-thaek, Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, who most frequently attended Kim Jong-un, was expelled from the party in 2013 and executed shortly afterwards. Other high-ranking officials have been repeatedly promoted or demoted within a short time period.

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At the North-South Summit in April, the leaders of the two countries promised to declare the end to the Korean War within the year. It was only four months after Kim Jong-un announced his readiness to send delegates to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in his New Year Address, where he stressed his intention for dialogue. He took a series of steps, from an exchange of special envoys with South Korea to holding the China-North Korea Summit as well as holding the North-South Korea Summit in preparation for the U.S.-North Korea Summit. As for his relationship with the U.S., I speculate that Kim Jong-un wants to trade denuclearization with assurances about his regime before Trump changes his mind, in an effort to accelerate his policy implementation.

Kim Jong-un’s style of governing is also characterized by his pragmatism, that is, his focus on results. He has acknowledged his failures and sought a breakthrough for his next move. This is also the case with his launch of a manmade satellite and missile testing.

For Pyongyang, the greatest challenge in the North-South Korea Summit and the U.S.-North Korea Summit is how to gain the assurances it needs to preserve the regime. Kim Jong-un wants to conclude a peace agreement so that his regime will not be exposes by changes in U.S. administrations. He also seeks to normalize diplomatic ties between the U.S. and North Korea. To gain these tangible benefits, Kim Jong-un was silent on the U.S.-South Korea joint military drill in March and is not insisting on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea at this point. We cannot entirely foresee what will happen, but it could be argued that Kim Jong-un has prepared for a complete denuclearization, assuming an agreement can be reached with the U.S.

The Panmunjom Declaration did not lay out detailed plans for new economic cooperation beyond connecting railways and roads between North and South Korea. North Korea hopes to accelerate the building of its economy by obtaining the South’s assistance once sanctions are lifted with a breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea relations. To obtain these results, North Korea needed to hold regular meetings with South Korea. North Korea freezing its nuclear and missile testing, releasing three Americans, and demonstrating the abolishment of a nuclear testing ground was based on a bid to draw large, tangible results from the U.S. in the future.

The third characteristic of Kim Jong-un’s style of governing is his focus on process. When making policy decisions, Kim Jong-un emphasized systems and procedures by holding meetings, even if just pro-forma, and clarified the processes. This was also the case with personnel matters. Kim Jong-un gave Kim Yo-jong, his sister, a post as First Vice Chairwoman of the Workers’ Party of Korea when he allowed her to enter the spotlight.

On April 20, Kim Jong-un held an all members’ meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and simultaneously withdrew the “Byungjin Line,” the policy of carrying out economic construction and nuclear and military development, which had been in place for five years, and decided to stop nuclear and missile testing. He sought to secure legitimacy by showing transparency to some extent. North Korea will request that the U.S. provide multiple security assurances, including the normalization of diplomatic ties.

North Korea has in the past made policy volt-faces for the sake of larger, tangible benefits. In 2002, for instance, Kim Jong-il, then-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, overturned the year-long allegation that the abduction issue was a story concocted by the Japanese government, acknowledged that it was true, and apologized to Japan with the larger objective of obtaining the tangible benefit of economic cooperation in exchange for the normalization of diplomatic ties with Japan.

Pyongyang will not readily part with the nuclear weapons that have taken so much time and resources to develop. However, the very possession of nuclear weapons exposes North Korea to a grave threat from the U.S. and damage from even more severe economic sanctions. For Pyongyang, possessing nuclear weapons is just a means to maintain the status quo. If it can obtain the requisite U.S. assurances, it will be able to part with its weapons. When normalizing U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba, former U.S. President Barack Obama demanded that the country lift its ban on the Internet. Undoubtedly, as more time passes, the U.S. will make other demands of North Korea, but for now, Pyongyang will only contemplate denuclearization. It is time for Kim Jong-un to make a deal to preserve his regime.

Atsuhito Isozaki is an Associate Professor at Keio University.