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What does Kim Jong Un want? America must tread carefully

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Secret visits to Pyongyang by the CIA. Plans to evacuate all U.S. citizens from the territory of a major U.S. ally before a military strike. A presidential request to strategize the possible withdrawal of American troops from foreign bases. A bulletproof armored train ride through China. The release of American prisoners from a labor camp. A handshake that could change history and earn two leaders the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sounds like the plot of a James Bond movie right? Wrong, unfortunately. This is the latest in a series of news dominating headlines over the last few weeks that reflects the new reality of the changing environment on the Korean Peninsula. While it is easy to get swept away by dramatic events, however, we must remember that history has shown the interests of the United States and its allies are better served when cooler heads prevail on and around the Korean Peninsula.

{mosads}The dramatic first meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on April 27 certainly made it seem possible that after 70 years of Cold War confrontation there could actually be a transition towards peace. In Seoul, there was a tangible sense of hope, optimism and anticipation about the potential for change. Lowered tensions between the two Koreas, as well as between the United States and North Korea was a relief to everyone in South Korea. Surprisingly, even the few North Korean defectors that I spoke with were positive and cautiously hopeful about the inter-Korean summit.

Yet, those who had escaped North Korea did not really believe that Kim Jong Un would give up his nuclear weapons. They were also skeptical that the North Koreans intended to open up the country to the outside world, as this would seriously challenge the long-term survivability of the regime. As a relic of the Cold War, and under growing external and internal pressures, the North Korean system must eventually change to survive.

But change without maintaining the brutal system of political and social control over the North Korean people could endanger the leader’s hold on power. There is widespread belief that Kim Jong Un’s worst nightmare would be to become like Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. This catch-22 dilemma, to open up and face collapse or maintain status quo and face collapse, has prevented North Korea from following China’s development path and implementing extensive reforms.

The deep skepticism expressed by the North Korean defectors is also echoed in Washington. Despite the positive optics of the inter-Korean summit, many U.S. experts believe that Kim Jong Un will still need to find a way to minimize the impact of any changes on his country to maintain power. Even if a deal is reached between President Trump and the North Korean leader during an upcoming bilateral summit, the real test will likely come afterwards during the implementation stage.

The question for most U.S. experts is this: Does Kim Jong Un have the will, intent and capacity to implement an agreement? Most believe that he will be limited in his ability to follow through with complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program even if he agrees to it in principle. He may have also difficulty in creating the conditions necessary for normalizing relations with the United States and following through on a peace treaty. The months and years after this initial Trump-Kim summit is where the rubber will hit the road.

In contrast, the South Korean government is much more optimistic and focused on the present question of Kim Jong Un’s good faith intentions to negotiate rather than his capacity to carry out any agreements. They believe that the Panmunjom Declaration produced from the inter-Korean summit is evidence of Kim Jong Un’s sincere desire to achieve peace and that seems to be enough for now. This may be evidence of a fundamental perception difference between how the United States and South Korea view the North Korean problem. As analysts have pointed out, Seoul appears to want to manage the problem and Washington wants to solve it.

In the weeks and months ahead, the negotiations for the summit between the United States and North Korea will hold greater importance for bilateral alliance coordination and testing Kim Jong Un’s intentions on complete denuclearization and the formulation of a peace treaty. The real danger lies in the growing expectation gap between Washington and Seoul and their respective goals for negotiating with Pyongyang.

The two Koreas have already agreed to work on a peaceful agreement to end the Korean War. They have also agreed to confidence building measures that Washington supports. The discussions of a peace regime and North Korea’s true intentions toward denuclearization are probably the areas of the largest concern for many U.S. experts and officials. In past negotiations, North Korea has demanded that a peace treaty be preceded by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and the end of the alliance between the United States.

While North Korea has not yet reportedly made such a request, expectations must still be tempered by pragmatic and realistic assessments of what can be accomplished in the upcoming summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. There must be close coordination and agreement on what the future process of negotiations and implementation process with North Korea will look like.

The immediate lifting of sanctions pressure and front-loading of concessions would undermine the long-term success of any deals reached at the summits. Extensive trilateral cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan will help ensure that there is no such daylight between U.S. allies on the goals for negotiations with North Korea. Bilateral U.S.-South Korean coordination and U.S.-China talks will also become even more important than before.

In the end, the strength of U.S. alliance relationships will determine, as they always have, how much peace and stability can be maintained on the Korean Peninsula. The dynamism and excitement of potentially changing times should not let us lose sight of that critical point. The promise of change can be thrilling, but policymakers should base their decisions on a clear view of the strategic environment in Asia and the importance of alliances, not on what makes for good television. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people in Asia depend on it.

Lisa Collins is a fellow in the office of the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This publication represents the personal views of the author and not those of her organization.

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong Un National security North Korea United States

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