Why has Kim Jong Un suddenly sought high-level diplomacy after years of bearing any burden to obtain nukes and a diversified missile arsenal capable of striking the United States? The Trump administration and its surrogates have interpreted the North Korean leader’s diplomatic turn as buckling to maximum pressure—in their narrative, unprecedented sanctions and the looming threat of war have brought Kim to heel. To many South Koreans and Korea watchers sympathetic to the Moon Jae In government in Seoul, Kim has sought dialogue because of Moon’s diplomatic acumen; Moon has been able to broker peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas while keeping the United States from attacking the North.
Both narratives give far too much credit to the United States and South Korea, and too little to Kim’s strategy. So far, everyone is playing Kim’s game. Failing to recognize that generates huge unnecessary risks to the U.S.-South Korea alliance and U.S. interests in the region.
Korea experts are fond of saying that Kim values survival above all else. But that’s as true as it is unrevealing. Everyone values survival. That says nothing about how everyone seeks to survive, and self-preservation has never stopped anyone from pursuing other near-term and long-term goals beyond the minimalism of not dying. Kim’s diplomacy is part of a strategy he’s been pursuing for years. Kim is playing several games here—through reaching out to Trump, he’s advancing his position in several of them at once.
What Kim Wants
When Kim came to power in 2011, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, he inherited not only the family-run North Korean dictatorship, but also the Kims’ longstanding goal of reunifying the Koreas. Kim has upheld that goal in his rhetoric, both internal and external. While there has never been much detail about what unification is supposed to look like from North Korea’s perspective, the prevailing assumption has always been that it does not include a U.S. alliance with South Korea or a U.S. troop presence in the South. North Korean (and even leftist South Korean) propaganda has always portrayed the United States as an obstacle to unification, even though its notion of unification can’t possibly be the same as the South’s presumption of absorbing North Korea or extending democratic governance northward. That’s certainly not what Kim has in mind. But because unification is a somewhat abstract aspiration, it also doesn’t have a deadline.
Kim has more concrete goals that are evident in North Korea’s word and deed, and which happen to also propel North Korea toward the meta-goal of unification, but on terms favorable to the North. Kim has sought to 1) secure his rule against internal challengers, 2) achieve and demonstrate a reliable nuclear deterrent, 3) improve his people’s quality of life, and 4) elevate North Korea’s international standing as a nuclear state. Until very recently, his priority has been the first two goals. Having made significant progress on them, with his current charm offensive, Kim is now aiming to do the same for the latter two.
These four priorities, paired with the far-off ambitions of unification, are a logical response to the situation Kim inherited. He faced a legitimacy deficit when he first came to power because he was an inexperienced, Swiss-educated millennial and the youngest son in a culture that privileges the first-born. Many Korea experts expected he wouldn’t be up for the job and, as a consequence, wouldn’t be long for this world. But Kim almost immediately set about killing and purging a long list of senior North Korean officials—more than 300, by one estimate—including the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was widely seen as the No. 2 man in the North at the time. It was never clear if this reign of terror was a sign of Kim’s strength or insecurity, but the body count suggests he’s made progress in girding himself against internal rivals, real or imagined.
The same can be said of nuclear weapons. It was absurd to expect that Kim—with initially precarious control over the country—would or could trade away the one thing that ensures the United States doesn’t invade. Nukes play a central role in how North Korea thinks about its own security against the outside world. There is no North Korean theory of security without nuclear weapons—they believe it is the only thing that will ultimately protect them from the United States. What’s more, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has birthed a large bureaucratic and elite constituency in Pyongyang—an entire nuclear “industry” of scientists, engineers, warfighters, and a corresponding maintenance and supply chain. The resource and human capital commitment to North Korea’s nuclear weapons enterprise means denuclearization could generate internal enemies, especially if declared by an unproven leader.
So in March 2013, Kim announced the “byungjin line” of simultaneously pursuing a long-range nuclear strike capability and economic development. U.S. policy under Obama and Trump has tried to make those two aspects of Kim’s strategy a tradeoff—you can have economic ties to the outside world or you can have nukes, but you can’t have both—but the North Koreans always refused to see it that way. As a result, U.S. policy has only had the effect of accelerating Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, leading to 4 nuclear tests and 86 missile tests over the past six years. More U.S. pressure always translated into more testing, which is why the idea that maximum pressure brought about any of the recent events is a farce.
But on Nov. 28 of last year, Kim successfully tested the Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile that proved North Korea’s theoretical ability to reach any target in the United States. Kim immediately declared victory, issued commemorative postage stamps celebrating the launch as “perfecting the national nuclear forces,” and announced the next phase in his strategy at a meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party that took place just before Kim’s summit with Moon. That next phase deliberately prioritizes the North Korean economy. It may even involve significant internal economic reforms at some point, though it’s too soon to tell.
Regardless, what we’ve seen from Kim the past five months is a full-on diplomatic offensive, which is 180 degrees different from his posture toward the outside world in 2016 and 2017. Summit meetings with China’s Xi Jinping (in March), with Moon last week, and eventually with Trump are the highest profile events in a sudden—and much broader—pattern of engagement with the outside world. Since the November ICBM test, we’ve not only seen big ticket presidential summitry from Kim—we’ve also seen North Korean meetings with Russia’s foreign minister, the visit to Pyongyang by the International Olympics Committee Chairman, a delegation of Southeast Asian scholars and former officials invited to Pyongyang to talk about improving relations, and the resumption of Track II (unofficial) dialogue between North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and former officials from the United States and Europe. All of this in addition to Kim having his sister, Kim Yo Jeong, lead a North Korean delegation to participate in the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Neither Trump’s maximum pressure nor Moon’s opportunism can explain the timing or global extent of Kim’s gambit. North Korea held meaningful diplomacy with the outside world in abeyance while it chased a secure second-strike nuclear capability last year. But only one month after his record-breaking ICBM launch, Kim gave the New Year’s speech that initiated all the diplomacy and hopeful media coverage that has come to define 2018 in stark contrast to the same time last year.
With a firmer grip on the regime and a strengthened nuclear strike capability, all this diplomacy moves Kim closer to his remaining goals of prioritizing the economy and elevating North Korea’s international standing as a nuclear state. The fact of hosting friendly meetings with foreign delegations and presenting them with memorabilia commemorating the recent success in “perfecting the national nuclear forces” is a nuclear status fait accompli. And even if North Korea can’t rejoin the international community in full because of continuing human rights abuses and opaque economic practices, going on the diplomatic offensive is a smart way of discouraging the international community—and especially China—from stringently implementing an increasingly suffocating international sanctions regime. Diplomacy is a low-cost means of getting sanctions relief, which will help improve the North Korean standard of living. At the same time, an extended process of reconciliation with South Korea holds out the promise of much needed economic investment and assistance. Already there’s talk of an energy corridor running from Russia, through North Korea, down to the South. That all this encourages greater friction in the U.S.-South Korea alliance and mutes the preventive war narrative that was building last year in Washington is simply a bonus.
Kim’s playing a multi-level game. Thinking in terms of Kim having a singular or primary motivation oversimplifies the reality that diplomacy done right can do many things at once—for example, nudge the United States out of the picture while presenting North Korea to the world as a “peaceful” nuclear state that doesn’t deserve to be under such stringent sanctions. Kim’s diplomacy encourages a public narrative of rapprochement with both the South and the United States, which in turn helps bring all of his goals closer to reality. North Korea does not necessarily need to abandon any of its nuclear weapons for all of this to happen.
Does America Want What Kim Wants?
What Kim wants is utterly at odds with decades of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Maybe that’s OK given the abysmal failure of that policy, which saw the Kim regime attain its dream of acquiring nuclear weapons while keeping its people in appalling conditions. America’s past positions are certainly not something Trump is beholden to. More disconcertingly though, there hasn’t been any meaningful public discussion about aspects of North Korea policy other than denuclearization, such as human rights protections or the long-term merits of the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. Without a serious public debate, Trump could saunter into a meeting with Kim and unwittingly trade away American interests that were long assumed to be important but simply never discussed. In return, because of what Kim’s goals are, Trump will inevitably not get the denuclearization he seeks, and it is unclear if something less or different is acceptable to the United States.
How acceptable, for instance, is a peace treaty if North Korea makes only symbolic progress toward denuclearization? Is an arms control solution—which would leave North Korea the ability to strike regional targets but not U.S. territory—acceptable? Is American strategy in Asia—which necessitates a forward military presence in places like South Korea—more or less of a priority than achieving denuclearization? In short, what alternative futures in Korea most and least serve U.S. interests? There’s no sign that Trump has wrestled with these questions.
And even if Americans disagree about the answers to questions like these—and I suspect they do—the absence of any meaningful discussion about them makes it entirely likely that Trump and Kim reach a deal that’s good for each of them personally but not good for the United States. It’s plausible, for example, that Kim and Trump could agree to a peace treaty ending the Korean War and a commitment to rollback North Korea’s nuclear arsenal so that it no longer includes ICBMs but does allow Kim to retain some nukes. That would do significant damage to the credibility of U.S. alliances in the region, turning them into the depreciating asset—or increasing liability—that Trump always viewed them as anyway.
Trump’s recent tweets on North Korea suggest he’s desperate for a deal, which would bring him much needed favorable news headlines amid so many domestic political scandals. He also keeps leaving hints that he really wants to claim he’s the man who ended the Korean War, even though he’s likely never stopped to ask why it is that North Korea too has always wanted the United States to agree to end the war. With a peace treaty in hand, Kim would undermine the single most important factor justifying the U.S. troop presence in Korea, and by extension, the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Kim need not demand immediate troop withdrawal as part of a peace treaty. At the first sign of post-peace friction, Kim can wave that treaty in America’s face and say “Yankee go home.” That would immediately spark debates in Seoul about the future of the alliance, and with a peace treaty in hand, anti-American activists in the South will have a much stronger case for pushing out the United States than in decades past.
Taking Trump at his word during the campaign trail—when he decried U.S. allies Japan and South Korea ungrateful freeriders—it would be reasonable to conclude that Trump is willing to forsake U.S. allies in the region by getting Kim to agree to negotiate away his ICBMs but ultimately leaving Kim with a regional nuclear strike capability. Nuclear scholars have worried that a North Korean ICBM capability would “decouple” the United States from South Korea—the question of whether America would trade Seattle for Seoul in a nuclear conflict is a rhetorical one. We know the answer. The irony of a nuclear deal between Kim and Trump may actually be that true decoupling will happen when North Korea retains only the ability to strike U.S. allies but not the United States. Kim can simultaneously give a nod in the direction of denuclearization, remove the imminent threat to the U.S. homeland posed by his ICBMs, and expand a wedge between the United States and its allies.
The point is that Kim’s diplomacy is a progression of Kim’s strategy. Claiming that it’s the result of South Korea’s negotiating savvy or Trump’s maximum pressure campaign only ensures that Trump shows up to meet Kim with eyes wide shut about his counterpart’s motivations. Trump might be perfectly happy to ignore the ultimate price and tradeoffs of a deal as long as it generates favorable news headlines. But what about the rest of America?