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Kim Jong Un has major powers falling for his flirtations

Kim Jong Un has major powers falling for his flirtations
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The term “sequencing” has taken seat as an immutable component of the North Korea negotiation lexicon — that for any discussion on U.S.-North Korea negotiations to carry weight, the word must be injected skillfully at appropriate points in the debate. We often say the United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are at odds with the “sequencing.”  Washington wants Pyongyang to make a declaration of its nuclear weapons and missiles, production facilities and fissile materials; the Kim regime wants the Trump administration to agree to a peace declaration to end the Korean War.

To North Korea’s advantage, this emphasis on sequencing effectively has bought time and averted our attention from assessing the heart of the matter: does Kim Jong Un intend to give up his nuclear program?

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His intentions have been made patent through noncommittal, generic statements on the broad “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” repeated in the Panmunjom, Singapore and Pyongyang summit joint declarations. If this hasn’t served a point already, North Korea occasionally reminds us that calling for its complete denuclearization — with or without Washington’s assurances of regime stability — is an unreachable pie in the distant sky.

Take, for example, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly. Standing before the international community, Ri reiterated that the DPRK will in “no way” “unilaterally disarm first” without seeing Washington’s trust-building measures. And just days before Secretary Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump attends Army-Navy game Trump reportedly demanding more funding from South Korea for American troops’ presence Heather Nauert is the wrong choice for UN ambassador MORE’s recent visit to Pyongyang, the DPRK’s state-run KCNA called U.S. demands for the North’s inventory of its nuclear program and dismantlement of its nuclear facilities “rubbish.”

Washington has invested much of its time and rhetoric to dialogue with Pyongyang — if not for the dogged faith that this time around, the North Koreans are different and serious about normalizing relations with the outside world, then at least for the sole intent of proving that President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be 'in court right now' if he weren't the president or 'privileged' Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE’s pursuit of a “dialogue” with Kim, however consistent or contrived, allowed the two countries to reach a state of peace and détente no other U.S. president has attained. To bow out now without having taken a stab at resolving the problem could signal defeat, or perhaps risk a greater fallout in relations with North Korea, South Korea and the Northeast Asia region. So the United States persists, but without a clear strategy on dealing with Pyongyang.

As the United States continues to waffle on its responses to North Korean action, the DPRK faithfully marches forward according to its long-held strategy — its own sequence map. Kim intends to keep his country’s nuclear deterrent to ensure the regime’s security and focus on the North’s economic development. Talks of denuclearization are coquettish, serving only to tease the region and the international community and entice the major powers to line up to negotiate and meet with Kim.

And this strategy appears to be effective, with regional powers subscribing to Pyongyang’s sequence. As Secretary Pompeo’s tour in Asia continued, South Korean president Moon Jae-in last week announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping could visit North Korea soon. Beijing, a critical player in determining the path forward on the DPRK issue, has kept mum about its position over the past few months and only recently signaled a possible shift in its position through a head-of-state visit to Pyongyang. This could indicate China’s harder line against the United States; closer Beijing-Pyongyang ties could strengthen Xi’s position and bargaining power against Washington.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the Kremlin extended an invitation to Kim to visit the country. South Korean media reported the sighting of a North Korean cargo plane in Vladivostok, bolstering the assertion that Kim’s visit to Russia was imminent. Additionally, North Korean, Chinese and Russian officials recently met in Moscow to coordinate a three-country approach to the DPRK’s nuclear issue and called on the U.N. Security Council to adjust the sanctions regime against the North. During this meeting, Beijing and Moscow expressed support for Pyongyang’s position on “phased and synchronized measures” to ensure it received compensation and assurances from the international community during the process.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced it may lift unilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea in response to the DPRK’s sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, on the grounds that ongoing inter-Korean talks improved relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, calling for a need to “flexibly review” lifting the punitive measures. Seoul resumed water purification operations and tap water supply to the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong — this water also is being provided to North Koreans living nearby. The Unification Ministry justified Seoul’s decision as contributing to the denuclearization negotiations by “maintaining round-the-clock communications channels” through the Kaesong liaison office.

Whereas Seoul previously took a more cautious approach in balancing its position between Washington, its longtime ally, and Pyongyang, its neighbor across the 38th parallel, the Moon administration now has made its position very clear. South Korea places premium on bolstering inter-Korean rapprochement across economic, educational, humanitarian and cultural lines for a unified “one Korea” front — which, fortuitously for Pyongyang, is in line with the Kim regime’s sequence map of negotiations.

As much as there has been talk about the sequencing gap between the United States and North Korea, it seems the only sequence map that has effectively delivered results is that of Pyongyang. Whereas Washington has been hot and cold on its position, the DPRK has never veered off course from its long-term strategy of retaining its nuclear deterrent as a bargaining leverage and enticement for regional powers to negotiate with Kim. To Kim’s advantage, this blueprint appears to be endorsed by critical players in the region, including South Korea.

Washington has forfeited significant leverage and maneuverability in these negotiations. Let’s resist the pressure of time constraints and political victories, and instead take a long-term, calculated approach — à la North Korea.

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.