The Korean Peninsula is arguably the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flashpoint, but rarely – if ever – in inter-Korean relations has one side offered so much so swiftly.
According to South Korean officials who returned from two meetings in Pyongyang on Tuesday and delivered a press briefing in the South, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered a summit with the South and “candid” talks with the United States, while unilaterally freezing missile and nuclear tests during the anticipated negotiation process.
Most notably, according to the briefing, North Korea is open to denuclearization. “The North side clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and said it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea removed,” Seoul’s delegation head and National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong said.
Chung and other officials are expected to fly to Washington on Thursday to brief their US counterparts.
Willingness to discuss denuclearization was the key pre-condition set by the US administration for talks – meaning Kim’s offer punts the ball deep into Washington’s court. US President Donald Trump has responded with guarded optimism, tweeting, “For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned….May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
Kim’s magnanimity appears to bear out the diplomatic moves undertaken during what South Korean President Moon Jae-in has dubbed the “Peace Olympics” in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which saw intense inter-Korean dialogs taking place on the sidelines – and possibly behind closed doors elsewhere.
In Seoul, Tuesday’s announcements have stoked a combination of excitement at the possibilities, alongside an outpouring of cynicism, based on a long history of past diplomatic disappointments and failures.
“There was a lot of shock here, and I felt that too,” said Koo Se-woong, publisher of Korea Expose. “At first I thought, ‘This is great news!” – but the question is, ‘Can a deal really last?’” Others were more circumspect. “I am not excited – you have to be Zen! – but these are positive developments,” said John Delury of Seoul’s Yonsei University. “It is a breakthrough, and we are seeing a series of them, but there is a very long way to go.”
What is motivating charm offensive?
It is not clear whether Kim is acting out of a fear of Washington, of confidence in his own position, or of the opportunities for rapprochement offered by the administration in Seoul.
Fear of Washington may be merited. The Trump administration differs from its predecessors in the inflammatory rhetoric it has aimed at North Korea, and the signals it has sent about a unilateral, pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
“Trump has been working quite well, so far: The major reason why the North Koreans are so willing to make concessions, and South Korea are so happy to accept them, is fear,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They are both afraid of the Donald Trump administration, they are standing in the same boat.” Lankov added: “Trump might mean business – nobody knows if he is or not – and both North and South are acting on the assumption that he does.”
Diplomatic and economic pressures may also be driving events. “North Korea is clearly under pressure from the US and needs to fend off that pressure, so came to South Korea, as the North Koreans are very anxious about what is happening later this year,” said Go Myung-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute, referencing spring military drills. “They don’t want Washington to have the initiative on the Korean peninsula, either militarily or diplomatically, they want to lead; they don’t want to give the US any space.”
It is not just Washington that is troublesome for Pyongyang: The international community is applying pressure while its traditional benefactor appears to have lost patience. “They have begun to feel the pain of economic sanctions,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute. “And their relations with China may have hit the lowest spot in the history of bilateral relations.”
Kim may have also hit a wall in his strategic arms programs: Some analysts believe that he is running out of parts for missile engines, while other data shows dangerous collapses at his underground nuclear testing facility. If, however, he undertook an atmospheric nuclear test, that could be a red line for Washington and the global community.
Conversely, given last year’s advances in his nuclear and missile programs – most notably the test of a missile that can hit the US continent – Kim may be feeling secure. “Last year was a banner year of nuclear and missile testing, and Kim said they had completed this phase of their progress, so he has reason for some confidence,” said Delury, referencing Kim’s comments following his successful ICBM test last November. “He could go into negotiations with greater security about his own position.”
Another factor is the liberal government that took office in Seoul in May 2017, following two conservative administrations. “Don’t forget Moon!” said Delury. “His government has a very different approach to North-South relations than the governments of the last 10 years, and its deep commitment to dialog and cooperation translates into different opportunities for North Korea.”
Even so, Moon is limited in what he can offer, beyond enabling Pyongyang-Washington dialogue. “Moon can smile over a barbeque at Kim, but cannot discuss sanctions or economic exchanges, which would be seen as economic assistance and sanction breaking,” Lankov said. “And Seoul cannot discuss military measures: If it unilaterally reduced joint exercises, America would be annoyed, and in South Korea the alliance now is more popular than ever due to unease about China.”
That last factor, in addition to Seoul’s strong push for Pyongyang to talk with Washington, negates one motive that is frequently proposed for North Korean behavior: Its intention to drive a wedge between the two allies.
The announcement of an inter-Korean summit had been widely anticipated, but Tuesday’s news included a surprise concession: While the two previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 had taken place in Pyongyang, the April 2018 summit will take place on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjeom, which straddles the border inside the Demilitarized Zone.
Moreover, the establishment of a hotline linking the North and South Korean leaders is also a first: No such channel has existed since the division of the peninsula in 1945.
The timing surprised some. “North Korea had to commit to denuclearization to carry the diplomatic momentum forward, but I am surprised by the speed: I expected a summit to be much later, in the second part of the year,” said Go. “This is an indication that the North Koreans are a little bit anxious right now.”
The fact that North Korea has offered to halt weapons tests while negotiations are underway should calm imminent fears. “I am optimistic, at least up to April, which was the crisis point that people were anticipating and dreading,” said Koo, referring to the climax of South Korea-US military exercises, customarily the tensest time on the peninsula.
Kim’s move puts the onus on the US to talk. “Unless Washington acts unpredictably, they have little ground to pick faults with negotiations,” Koo added.
Those negotiations offer a valuable period of reduced tensions – which could extend for years. “Kim is not going to abandon his [nuclear weapons], he more likely wants to win breathing space and wait for the next president, who will be less dangerous,” said Lankov. “But that is likely to be three to seven years of quiet – which is good.”
The fact that Pyongyang is willing to discuss denuclearization, when all messaging over the past decade is that the regime’s nuclear arms are sacrosanct, is telling. “In recent years, they have never said they will denuclearize, so we have no idea of their conditionalities,” said Choi. “This is a good gesture, but it is likely to be a freeze rather than denuclearization.”
The conditions Pyongyang would demand for actually abandoning nuclear arms are likely to be steep, if not unrealistic. “North Koreans have said several times before that it will give up nuclear weapons if everyone else gives up their nuclear weapons,” Go said.
Based on Tuesday’s briefing, one of Pyongyang’s preconditions for denuclearization is an end to the military threats against it. That would likely cover four key points for the US to address, said Asan’s Choi; the signing of a peace treaty between North Korea and the US to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War; termination of South Korean-US joint military exercises; the dissolution of the South Korea-US mutual defense treaty; and the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea. “They have reiterated these over and over again in meetings with US officials and ex-officials,” Choi said.
Even so, given the centrality of the alliance to Seoul-Washington policy, Pyongyang has some wobble room: “I would guess: lifting of sanctions; diplomatic normalization; and asking for a peace treaty,” said Choi.
The second condition for denuclearization is a security guarantee, but it is unclear what Kim could accept. North Korean state media frequently refers to the guarantees offered to Libya in return for the abandonment of its nuclear programs, which did not stop a Western alliance teaming up with rebels to overthrow the Gadaffi regime.
“Guarantees of regime survival are impossible,” Lankov stated flatly. “American, Russian or Chinese promises are hardly worth the paper they are written on, and North Korea faces a dual threat: foreign attack and domestic rebellion.”
In the latter case, it seems unlikely that Washington would guarantee sanctuary for the Kim family or regime officials, given their history of human rights abuse, Lankov added.
Is a North Korea-US deal really feasible?
North Korea has a long history of breaking agreements, and Washington has also sewn grounds for mistrust: It did not follow through on its obligations under the 1994 “Agreed Framework” agreement, and, according to some, undermined the now-defunct six-party talks in 2005 by attacking North Korea over its international banking operations. Hence, both parties have reason to distrust the other.
Still, given Trump’s pride in his negotiating skills and his ideological flexibility – he appears more willing to strike North Korea, and also more willing to meet North Korea’s leader than either of his predecessors – some outcome is feasible. “We may see progress on shallow issues surrounding denuclearization, as the US is likely to give it a try,” said Chad O’Caroll, owner of specialist media NKNews.
“North Korea will not realistically discuss denuclearization on any concrete terms: They said this as necessary lip service to start talks,” Lankov said. “They saw Iraq, Libya and Ukraine; they are not going to go that way.”
Given this, the realistic options are a manufacturing freeze, a testing moratorium, the return of international inspectors and abandonment of some components. “Maybe Kim can be blackmailed or bribed into surrendering some of what he has got, but it will be difficult and costly,” Lankov added.
Another issue is whether the Trump administration has the diplomatic bandwidth to handle high-level, high-priority talks with North Korea. Washington lacks diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and it currently has no ambassador in Seoul. Following the surprise withdrawal of academic Victor Cha from the running, there is no obvious candidate in sight, and the recent retirement of the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun leaves another gap.
“There are some obvious holes in the staffing,” said Delury. “Trump can tweet, but he needs staff to do the work. The North Koreans are well staffed; the South Koreans are well staffed; it is the USA needs an A team.”
Then there is the American president’s demands for results. “My worry is that Trump might be intoxicated with success, he will demand more and more and sooner and sooner and sooner,” Lankov said. “The risk is if North Korea in any way tries to cheat the US, that is very dangerous, because this is a US president who does not like to be embarrassed,” added O’Carroll. “He will not tolerate these tactics by North Korea.”
From a broad perspective, Tuesday’s announcement extends the spectrum of reward and risk to limits that are wider than ever. “This could be a game changer,” mused Lankov. “But if it falls apart, the risks will be even higher.”