North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un struck a quasi-conciliatory tone in his New Year's address. While pledging to work tirelessly to achieve the “final victory of the juche revolution” (a longstanding code name for the North emerging as the sole de jure Korea), Kim also stated he would be open to sending a delegation to next month's Winter Olympiad in South Korea. He even wished Seoul success. The world’s attention has fallen on this carrot of Kim’s speech, while the coercive aspect of his stratagem — liberating the South by force — remains unexamined.
Kim's softer gesture, in view of his proclivity for rhetorical bellicosity, creates excitement and expectations of diplomatic progress. But the carrot element is a staple of the Pyongyang playbook, entirely disingenuous and rather predictable. With a banner ballistic year under his belt, it’s now time for Kim to unleash a faux peace offensive. Kim has nothing to lose — and plenty to gain — in sending athletes and cheerleaders to the South. A merry image makeover it will be for the North Korean regime, underwritten by an indulgent South.
Seoul will seek high-level meetings with the North, including a summit meeting. It may even pledge new aid and concession packages. Such was the norm when the North sent cheerleaders to international sporting events held in the South in 2002, 2003 and 2005. In those heady times, over a billion dollars a year flowed from the South into Pyongyang. A return by Seoul to subsidizing Pyongyang as Washington tries in earnest to sanction the same target is bound to create fissures in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. It would be a significant victory for Kim.
As North Korean cheerleaders clap and dance in sync in support of South Korean and—perish the thought—even American athletes competing against third-country contestants. the atmospherics in the Korean peninsula would morph overnight from a dangerous flashpoint to a land of peace and reconciliation. North Korean participation would jazz up the so far unspectacular winter games. It would raise revenues for Seoul, spike TV ratings, and may even impel the hitherto reluctant Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the opening ceremony. Most of all, it would paint Kim as a well-meaning, blundering dictator who, despite U.S. threats of total destruction, is doing his best to survive and seek peace.
Dear America: Don't fall for the optics of peace, for Pyongyang's predictable, poisonous ploy.
For one, Kim’s "soft stance" will give wind to the oft-floated message by Seoul, Beijing and Moscow that the United States should deescalate and make concessions to Pyongyang; namely, relax sanctions, suspend the decades-old annual combined military exercises with South Korea, and negotiate a peace treaty with the North. The more Kim comes across as the aggrieved party clinging to nukes out of paranoia and President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE as the aggressor motivated by machismo and megalomania, the more credible will the North’s unreasonable demands sound.
What comes next on Kim’s must-do list? Evict all U.S. Forces from the South, condition Washington to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, and bully and censor the South into submission.
This is what Kim Jong-Un means when he speaks of completing the “juche revolution.” As the poorer, bleaker, illegitimate Korean state, this is a non-negotiable strategy that best guarantees self-preservation. The keystone of this strategy is becoming a credible, constant nuclear threat to the United States, while periodically driving a wedge between Washington and its allies with fake peace gestures. Hence, a nuclear North Korea will not behave like a conventional nuclear state. Its capability and intent to menace the region will only increase, as will the probability of a nuclear war, even as Pyongyang dangles more carrots before its neighbors in the years to come.
Remember: Pyongyang’s peace offensive is usually a prelude to a provocation. More serious weapons tests and controlled attacks will come sooner than later. Just days after the dramatic visit by three top North Korean officials to the closing ceremony of the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, North Korea fired machine gun rounds into the South to deter balloon activists. The next month, North Korea carried out an unprecedented cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment and with cyber terrorism censored Americans. In early March 2010, Pyongyang called on Seoul for direct military-to-military talks — then torpedoed a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors. In June 1950, a couple of weeks before invading the South and starting the Korean War, Pyongyang called on Seoul for high-level talks on reunification.
The United States must recognize that Kim sees his latest fake peace gesture as an insurance policy against a forceful response in the wake of its next big provocation. Why? Because the new hunky-dory dynamics of inter-Korean reconciliation may deter the full enforcement of sanctions and any aggressive response by the United States once tensions rise yet again.
The United States should not succumb to the new fuzzy atmospherics of the Korean peninsula. To prematurely relax sanctions and turn a blind eye to Seoul’s unconventional campaign of engaging Pyongyang would be to invite a calamity — not necessarily in a land across the Pacific but on the U.S. homeland, as Kim’s intercontinental ballistic missiles come screaming across the sky.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.