Kim Jong Un cannot afford to fail again
President Donald Trump clearly wants a deal with North Korea. Chairman Kim Jong Un also wants a deal with the United States. Working-level talks between both countries recently were held in Sweden. And former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, once considered a main impediment to an agreement, is out of the picture.
In other words, North Korea might appear to be on course to reach a deal with the United States, one that could lead to sanctions relief, a peace agreement and mutual embassies in Washington and Pyongyang.
Except that the Kim family has a long history of failure when it comes to its U.S. policy. Above all, Pyongyang has failed in its main goal, dating to the 1970s — that is, normalizing bilateral relations with the United States. And as Kim’s self-imposed end-of-year deadline to get more concessions from the United States approaches, Pyongyang risks adding to a long list of failures in its negotiations with Washington.
Why would Pyongyang prioritize normalization of relations with Washington? Nuclear weapons and missiles bring security. Good relations with China provide cash. A North Korean ambassador roaming Capitol Hill, however, would bring something bigger: recognition for the Kim regime.
The Kim family wants diplomatic relations with the United States to legitimize its position, domestically and internationally. This would allow the Kim family to justify the existence of North Korea as an independent country, separate from its more successful neighbor to the south. Indeed, for Pyongyang, it is South Korea’s success as a democracy and free-market economy that is the main threat to the regime’s survival in the long run — unless it reforms.
As an added bonus, normalization of diplomatic relations with Washington would open the door to sanctions relief and funding from international institutions and foreign investment. That is, Kim could pay for the economic reforms he has been promising ordinary North Koreans since he took power in late 2011. Absent diplomatic relations with Washington, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and ordinary international investors will shun North Korea.
Three main reasons explain why North Korea has failed to achieve its main goal over the years. Most importantly, Pyongyang does not seem to know when to stop its nuclear and missile tests. The Six-Party Talks under President George W. Bush essentially collapsed when North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. The Obama administration terminated the Leap Day Agreement after Pyongyang conducted a satellite launch which also served its missile program.
Similarly, Pyongyang has tempted fate with its recent series of short-range missile tests. President Trump has dismissed them so far, but he might not do the same if the range increases.
Furthermore, Pyongyang seems not to understand the value of good relations with China, Russia and, especially, South Korea. The three of them appear to support improved U.S.-North Korea relations; they also stand ready to back North Korea’s economic transformation.
Yet, Kim essentially ignored them until last year. And in recent months, Pyongyang has launched a raft of insults toward the South Korean government, including personal attacks on President Moon Jae-in.
Poor relations with Beijing and Moscow resulted in five new rounds of United Nations sanctions in 2016 and 2017. Both China and Russia allowed them to be passed, out of frustration with North Korea’s behavior.
Meanwhile, verbal attacks on Seoul reduce South Korea’s willingness to help North Korea when things turn ugly with the United States. Moon has his own problems with Trump. He doesn’t need Kim to add to them.
Pyongyang seems unable to understand the benefits of a multilateral process to deal with the United States. For example, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran has not fully collapsed yet, because its other members have kept it alive, especially Europe. Otherwise, it would have been history as soon as the Trump administration withdrew.
Likewise, any agreement between Washington and Pyongyang stands a better chance of survival the more parties have a stake in it. Implementation of any deal that Trump might sign will outlast his presidency. Essentially, the process of North Korea trading off steps towards denuclearization for normal relations with the United States is too complex to be resolved in a few months. North Korea should actually encourage other countries to join in any agreement it might sign with Trump. Instead, it has been reluctant to “internationalize” its conflict with Washington.
If Kim has learned his lessons, he will stop all nuclear and long-range missile tests, look to strengthen relations with South Korea, China and Russia, and seek the multilateralization of any agreement he might reach with the United States. This would improve the chances of any deal becoming sustainable and permanent. Otherwise, the current round of diplomacy with Washington will end up in disappointment for North Korea once again.
As Washington and Pyongyang seek to solve the most intractable of conflicts, we should not forget that it is North Korea that has the most to lose if the process fails. The United States can live without a deal. Kim, in contrast, needs an agreement to realize his goals.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, an internationally-oriented university located in Brussels, Belgium. He is the author of “North Korea-US Relations from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un.” Follow him on Twitter @rpachecopardo.