Kim visit could tighten wedge between Washington and Seoul

With just a couple weeks remaining in 2018, the prospect of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting Seoul by year-end — as agreed to between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the September Pyongyang summit — remain speculative at best. Headlines in Seoul and Washington largely rule out a Kim sojourn this month. The Blue House, for its part, has neither confirmed nor denied, sending an opaquely-worded text message to reporters that cited a lack of progress in the situation and offered “nothing to announce” about the visit.

In Seoul, groups in anticipation of and opposition toward a possible Kim visit each held protests in recent days. Press reports speculated candidate hotels for Kim’s hypothetical stay and a rough itinerary that included a ride on the KTX train, a tour of Samsung Electronics’ industrial complex, and a visit to Jeju Island — the hometown of Kim’s maternal grandfather.

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Though the jury is still out on Kim’s visit, it’s opportune to think about what such a visit would advance in light of political atmospherics and recent developments.

Still fresh in our memory, last month a robust debate stemmed from a CSIS report and New York Times article on North Korea’s ongoing missile activity at the Sakkanmol base. A couple weeks later, CNN reported ongoing missile activity at the Yeongjeo-dong missile base and, notably, the expansion of a new missile base seven miles away that had not been identified previously. In the same time span, we know that Kim visited the facility of an “ultramodern tactical weapon.” Pyongyang did not describe the type of weapon, but it was enough to elicit Kim’s “passionate joy” and excitement at another great work to “increase the defense capability of the country.” To this day, North Korea has not shown any indication of halting its nuclear and missile program development.

In early December, the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) held secret talks at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss a second summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE and Kim Jong Un. The meeting, held between Andrew Kim and his counterpart, discussed the summit but stopped short of arranging a next high-level meeting. A South Korean government source described the meeting as a breakthrough in the stalemate in the U.S.-DPRK denuclearization talks. Though the date has not been set, President Trump expects the summit would take place in early 2019. To this day, North Korea refuses to deal at the working-level with Special Representative Stephen Biegun, preferring to deal directly with Trump.

Recently, the Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on three senior North Korean officials — Jong Kyong Thaek, Pak Kwang Ho, and Kim’s close adviser, Choe Ryong Hae — for the regime’s human rights abuses, censorship and the death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier. These designations convey a powerful message on U.S. intent to continue applying economic and political pressure to Pyongyang under current parameters. Yet, North Korea’s sanctions-skirting schemes and illicit finance networks morph and proliferate surreptitiously and through complex permutations, hidden North Korean illicit networks continue to be exposed long after they have been in operation, as the latest Wall Street Journal article intricately reports.

Pyongyang’s continued missile and nuclear development and defiance of international norms on human rights and licit finance notwithstanding, Seoul — and at times, even Washington — has been bent on pushing a speedy inter-Korean rapprochement, seemingly mutually exclusive to the status on U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks. President Moon, to nudge movement on U.S.-North Korea talks on denuclearization and elicit support to ease sanctions on the Kim regime, has made sure to drop a line about the peace process on the peninsula whenever possible throughout his official visits around the world, most recently in the Czech Republic and New Zealand. International support, however, largely remains rallied around continued sanctions implementation and North Korea’s denuclearization.

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Washington remains committed to sanctions enforcement and seeing constructive movement on the nuclear front. The U.S.-South Korea policy discord on North Korea at times manifests subtly in public. For instance, at the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Presidents Moon and Trump held a 30-minute, informal pull-aside conversation instead of the previously planned formal meeting. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ announcement of this downgrade appeared to have caught Seoul officials off guard, and ruffled some feathers among some South Korean critics concerned that the change in the meeting format was indicative of the widening divide between the two governments.

With no visible progress made on denuclearization, North Korea’s ongoing illicit activities, and the dulling reminder of tensions between Washington and Seoul in dealing with Pyongyang, a Kim visit prior to a coordinated U.S.-South Korea stance could not only precipitate another hastily arranged Trump-Kim summit; it also could create greater opportunities for Kim to persist in driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Washington, already concerned that the rapid pace of inter-Korean relationship-building could undermine efforts to bring Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, has conveyed warnings through subtle yet firm messages to Seoul on more than one occasion.

When Kim departs Seoul for Pyongyang, he potentially could walk away with economic benefits (recall the cash-for-summit scandal during the Kim Dae-jung administration and a “summit bill” the North demanded from President Lee Myung-bak), burnish his public image with a sliver of the South Korean population, and crucially, secure the affirmation of Seoul-Pyongyang ties from the Moon administration and the South Korean public. These gains and others, he likely will use to continue developing his nuclear and missile arsenal and strengthen his influence base in Pyongyang and in Seoul, as well. The two Koreas likely will continue pursuing relationship-enhancing endeavors, which potentially could weaken the South’s political, security and ideological defenses, causing further policy friction between Washington and Seoul.

For now, Kim’s visit by year-end seems unlikely. But should a ripe opportunity arise for his trip, fathom what this tinderbox could release and its implications for the alliance and US strategic interests.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.