Once the US-North Korean mutual deterrent rhetoric heated up to the levels we witnessed in late 2017 – culminating with the New Year’s “greetings” – it was pretty clear that the degree of threatening exchanges could not be sustained for long. Either the two states might stumble into military action, or, more likely, they would move to calm the situation down. It is perhaps not surprising that it was Kim Jong-Un who took the first step in the direction of tension reduction.
Kim most likely understood that although he had demonstrated the capability to strike the US mainland with his long-range missiles, there was no symmetry between his country and the US, and North Korea would likely be obliterated if he ever thought to actually strike the United States. But what became a little more scary for Kim is that US officials back in the summer of 2017 started talking about the possible need for a preemptive military strike against North Korea. And it wasn’t only Trump doing the talking – the statements came from others, like HR McMaster, the so-called “adult in the room.”
Moreover, the harsh sanctions that had been slapped on North Korea for its increasingly defiant behavior started to bite, and Kim needed to ease the pressure on that front as well. Luckily for Kim, he had a willing partner in his desire to calm things down – the new president of South Korea who was eager to latch onto any sign that the two Koreas might move toward more peaceful relations. Kim Jong-Un’s outreach was first to Moon Jae-in, who then helped facilitate the new chapter in US-North Korean relations.
While Kim’s aims for seeking a meeting with Trump seem pretty clear, what could coax the US president to play along? Clearly, the only thing the North Korean leader had to offer Trump was a promise of nuclear dismantlement, and he thus made the necessary gestures in that direction.
But can Kim Jong-Un seriously be expected to give up the nuclear capability that his father and he worked so hard to achieve? Is there a realistic chance that North Korea will denuclearize – completely, verifiably, and irreversibly – or any way else?
Not much. North Korea wants lowered tensions and economic assistance. Those are its goals. And if the past is any guide, the North Koreans have no problem promising denuclearization if it helps achieve those goals. But to actually deliver? Hard to imagine.
Nuclear weapons for North Korea not only ensure regime survival – which is of course an important goal – but they are also extremely important as a prestige enhancer for the regime. With nuclear weapons North Korea must be reckoned with, it cannot be ignored. Throughout this millennium the North Koreans have been seeking bilateral negotiations with the US. But they want to talk at eye level: “nuclear state to nuclear state.”
North Korea has insisted that it will not be dictated to in the nuclear realm; if the Americans want to talk about their nuclear capabilities, they must recognize that North Korea is equal to the US, and should be respected as such. Bush refused to acquiesce to this framing and created the Six Party format for negotiations, hoping to increase the regional negotiators’ collective leverage on North Korea; and Obama ended up stuck in “strategic patience” for eight years, not doing anything to advance negotiations.
Now President Trump came to a high-level bilateral summit with Kim Jong-Un
, which is a huge win for North Korea. But the only reason the North Korean leader was granted this special audience with the president is the fact that his country has nuclear weapons. Giving them up means not only exposing North Korea to possible moves toward unification on the Korean peninsula that would spell the end of North Korea, but a significant loss of international status, even if based on negative attention. So Kim’s promises need to be taken with not a small measure of skepticism.
The Singapore summit could nevertheless prove valuable, as an opening to an altered bilateral relationship. Tension-reduction is a mutually beneficial goal, and Trump was correct to agree to meet Kim and work to calm the situation down.
If expectations remain singularly focused on denuclearization, the president is probably in for a rude awakening. But Trump might understand this, as reflected in his recent statements that the summit is only the beginning of “a process.”
At the end of the day, decades of failed diplomacy with North Korea led to the sad result that it is a nuclear state, and at this late stage that situation is unlikely to be reversed. But a change of context – re US-North Korean relations – could also change the threat value of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, in the process that ensues, the US would be well advised to use this opportunity to put a stop to an equally worrisome aspect of North Korea’s nuclear activities: the fact that it will sell nuclear knowhow, technologies, and components to whoever will pay in hard cash. North Korea can and must be pressed to end these activities, first and foremost the dangerous cooperation with Iran in the missile and nuclear realms.Dr. Emily B. Landau is a senior research fellow at INSS and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program