Is Kim Jong Un angling for nuclear talks on his terms?
Don’t look now, but a clever gambit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be an effort by Pyongyang to gain leverage to press the Biden administration into new nuclear talks — on his terms.
This may help explain a quiet flurry of U.S. intelligence and diplomatic activity in recent days, with U.S. intelligence chiefs meeting with their South Korean counterparts. At the same time, Biden’s top North Korea envoy, Sung Kim, has been meeting with his South Korean and Japanese opposite numbers to coordinate new policy approaches. The U.S. and South Korea (ROK) appear to be groping for new ways to entice Pyongyang into talks, including using a coordinated package of humanitarian aid as a lure. But Kim’s maneuvers suggest they should be careful what they wish for.
Seoul has been pushing for an “End of War” declaration in hopes it would jump start U.S.-North Korea and North-South talks. This is not a new idea. It is just a declaration of intent. But it only makes sense as part of a comprehensive peace process in parallel with denuclearization. During the Six-Party talks in 2005, it was seen as a first step toward negotiating a peace treaty.
President Trump considered an End of War declaration before the Hanoi Trump-Kim summit. By itself, it is just a piece of paper. North Korea has blown hot and cold on it. In a recent statement, Kim’s sister and apparent No.2, Kim Yo Jong, said Moon’s End of War declaration proposal was “an admirable idea,” but only if “preconditions” – an end to the U.S. “hostile policy” (e.g; end sanctions, end U.S.-ROK alliance) – were met. Otherwise, she said, “it does not make any sense to declare the end of the war…” If the U.S. and ROK issue such a statement, it will likely play into Kim’s efforts to steer diplomacy in his direction.
Until now, Pyongyang has ignored U.S. entreaties for unconditional talks, as well as U.S. ideas floated for ways to move forward. Instead, Kim’s signaling has mainly taken the form of missile tests – five since September, the latest a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test on Oct. 19 – along with openings to South Korea and curious statements hinting at other possibilities. Most recently, Kim said that war itself, not the U.S., is the enemy. More about that later.
Over 25 years of nuclear diplomacy, North Korea has often displayed tactical brilliance in shaping the agenda. Now, after hermetically sealing North Korea, shutting its borders for 18 months, Pyongyang has begun to do just that. In late September, it suggested to Seoul reopening a North-South crisis hotline, with hints of a possible North-South Summit.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has viewed North-South reconciliation as his (now in doubt) legacy. Kim subsequently rejected 2018 North-South agreed peace accords. Moon pushed Trump, and now Biden to ease sanctions to allow inter-Korean economic cooperation. By enticing Seoul, Kim bet it would energize Moon to press Biden to restart talks.
Kim’s overture to Seoul was, as usual, punctuated by a series of missile tests to underscore that growing North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities – including what Kim said was a recent hypersonic missile – showed Kim was building, as he put it, an “invincible military.” For effect, the show was posted on YouTube. The event showcased a full array of its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Hwasong 15 and the still untested Hwasong 16.
Where it gets interesting are Kim’s remarks against the backdrop of his ostentatious muscle-flexing. While he blamed the root cause of tensions on the U.S. “hostile policy,” Kim pivoted away from Pyongyang’s longstanding vitriolic North Korean rhetoric vilifying the U.S. Instead, he argued that his sophisticated arsenal was solely for deterrence: “We are not discussing war with anyone, but rather to prevent war itself and to literally increase war deterrence for the protection of national sovereignty.”
The reveal was the punchline: “Our arch-enemy is war itself, not South Korea, the United States or any other specific state or forces. But our external efforts for peace does not in any way mean giving up our rights to self-defense.”
What does all this add up to? In case there was any doubt, Kim implied North Korea will never give up his nukes, its ultimate security guarantee. But the decided change in tone hints that Kim may be willing to discuss arms control, based on mutual deterrence. This likely means that if diplomacy does restart, it will not be about denuclearization but more likely a nuclear and missile freeze.
But Pyongyang’s continued silence in response to stepped up U.S. calls for dialogue suggests, before any new diplomacy is initiated, that Kim will try to leverage U.S. and South Korean calls for talks into concessions. High on the list would be an easing of United Nations Security Council sanctions — at a time when many in the U.S. want to ramp them up further.
All this portends a dilemma for the Biden administration. Kim’s goal, as North Koreans have told me, is to be accepted as a de facto nuclear weapons state, like Israel or Pakistan, and be treated as a normal nation. That is what is driving Pyongyang’s machinations.
After 25 years of efforts to denuclearize North Korea, is the U.S. prepared to scrap its goal and settle for half a loaf: a cap and freeze of Kim’s nuclear and missile programs? Doing so would likely cause a political firestorm in Washington, even if, as expected, it would be packaged as an “interim step” toward denuclearization, a dubious figleaf. But given the long trail of failed denuclearization diplomacy and the qualitatively new threats of Pyongyang’s dangerous development of ever more capable nukes and delivery systems, a freeze, though highly improbable, may be worth at least exploring.
There are at least two big issues. First, there is the question of what price the U.S. is prepared to pay. The consequences of normalizing North Korean nukes will ripple across U.S. foreign policy and perceptions of it. It would be a huge blow to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea is the only nation to withdraw from it. How would Iran react?
Perhaps the biggest reason such a deal would be improbable is the lack of transparency. Previous deals, the 1994 Agreed Framework and the September 2005 denuclearization deal, have collapsed over North Korean refusal to allow verification. Pyongyang has refused to provide a full declaration of its nuclear weapons program or allow the IAEA to verify and fully monitor its weapons program. How can you freeze what you don’t know exists? And absent adequate International Atomic Energy Agency verification, Pyongyang could easily stash away a few nukes.
Expect a wild ride, as maneuvering toward diplomacy plays out. Ultimately, North Korea is one of those wicked problems that may not have a solution and can only be managed. But current developments should be a cautionary note to the U.S. and its South Korean ally.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.