Test Kim's intentions to find out if this time is different

Test Kim's intentions to find out if this time is different

Is Kim Jong Un playing us? After two unprecedented face-to-face meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE came away arguing that Kim was about to make a “strategic choice” over trading his nuclear weapons for security and economic benefits.

Thus, unlike previous diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea, this time will be different.


But is it? How would we know? So far, there has been a deceptive sense of progress. To its credit, Pyongyang has taken some helpful steps:


  • halting nuclear and missile tests;
  • blowing up a nuclear test facility that was on the verge of collapsing anyway;
  • destroying a ballistic missile test facility (no longer needed, as they completed their tests); and
  • working with the Pentagon to recover remains of Korean War-era soldiers reported missing in action.

The North cites these "irreversible" gestures of good faith, demanding the U.S. declare an end to the Korean War and build a "peace regime," as agreed in the Singapore Summit joint statement.

So, when Trump says he is “very happy” with Kim’s cooperation, he does have a point. But on two fundamental issues on which the possibility of a successful deal advancing U.S. interests turns, there is nothing: economic reform and steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

The first is an important indicator of Kim’s intentions. The Kim family dynasty has, of late, defined its legitimacy as having nuclear weapons. They changed their constitution to define North Korea as a nuclear state.

But having declared that their nuclear and ballistic missile program is now complete, the argument is that Kim is prepared to put it on the table to gain economic and security benefits to modernize the decrepit North Korean economy and bring promised prosperity to his long-suffering people.

But is he? The word "reform" has yet to escape his lips. While Kim has indicated interest in — if not envy of — China’s economic reforms, he has yet to institute any market reforms from the top — even though widespread markets operate across North Korea compensating for inadequacies in its official economic system. 

Test Kim's intentions

But there is a simple, cost-free way to test Kim’s intentions. If he is serious about integrating North Korea into the regional economy, the U.S., South Korea (ROK) and China should tell Kim to begin talks with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organization about joining these core institutions, which are essential if Pyongyang is to obtain large-scale foreign investment and build economic relations.

But Pyongyang’s budget and fiscal information are considered state secrets. So, this would be an important test of seriousness. In addition, the U.S. and ROK could help Kim modernize his economy by offering to train all the MBA’s, lawyers, accountants and technicians he is prepared to send us. For the U.S., it is a simple logic, anything that opens up North Korea is a win-win.

Similarly, we need to test Kim’s intentions on defining what he means by “denuclearization,” a question Mike Pompeo is now unable to answer.

How? Again, not difficult: The first step in any effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is for Pyongyang to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a full inventory of its nuclear weapons program and facilities so it can design a credible verification and monitoring regime. Absent that, we have absolutely nothing.

To be fair, in response to Pyongyang’s demand to create a peace regime, the U.S. can propose that Washington would be happy to initiate four-party talks (U.S., ROK, North Korea, China — signatories to the armistice) to negotiate an end to the Korean War and turn the armistice into a peace treaty as soon as Pyongyang provides the IAEA an inventory of exactly what its nuclear program consists of and allows the IAEA to set up an intrusive verification and monitoring system — as least as comprehensive as was done in Iran.

If North Korea does not respond to these initiatives, than they are telling us something very important: This time is not different. They are using the same old playbook to manipulate the narrative and deceive us.

At the same time, since the IAEA can only monitor the nuclear program, not dismantled nukes or shipped-out fissile material, the U.S. should call a meeting of senior technical experts from Northeast Asia’s declared weapons states — the US, China and Russia — to begin discussing how to actually dismantle North Korea’s program, disassemble nuclear weapons and remove fissile material form Korea.

Finally, to show our good will, the U.S. should invite Kim’s favorite musical group, the Moranbong all-women band, to perform at the Kennedy Center and the North Korean men and women’s soccer teams to play against the respective U.S. national teams. A modern version of ping-pong diplomacy!

These actions would allow the U.S. to change what is now a dangerous diplomatic dynamic and gain control of the narrative. Kim’s responses would tell us all we need to know about his real intentions.

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001-04, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004-08 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-12. Twitter: @Rmanning4.