We Need to Test Our Assumptions About North Korea
The Western media is filled with projections and speculation about the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. These views are based on long-held assumptions within the Pyongyang watching community about North Korea’s strategy for its nuclear program and intentions on the Korean Peninsula. Concerns about Kim Jong-un laying a trap or rehashing a strategy that we have seen before abound to the point that they are almost sacrosanct.  It is time that the community of Korea watchers reassesses these assumptions. Many may prove to be valid and well worth holding on to. But others should be challenged for proof and logic. Only through a clear eyed approach to North Korea can we hope to develop strategies that will have resonance and traction and make the most of the opportunity that we may now be presented with.
The first assumption we need to consider focuses on the reason for Kim Jong-un’s about-face in 2018 from brinkmanship to diplomacy. The assumptions related to this question are not universal. The U.S. administration and many of the conservative pundits give credit to President Trump’s strategy of Maximum Pressure and threats of a bloody nose if North Korea did not change its ways and stop testing its missile and nuclear programs and come to the negotiating table. They argue that North Korea was feeling the pain of the sanctions and Kim needed relief. There seems little doubt that North Korea was feeling the sting of sanctions, but if we maintain this as the sole reason for Kim’s actions, we assume he is coming to the negotiating table from a self-perceived position of weakness. Such an assumption is likely wrong and could leave U.S. negotiators feeling they are in a conspicuously advantageous position—a feeling that could lead to serious missteps in the course of negotiations.
It can be argued that Kim has been planning a major diplomatic push for years, only biding his time until the conditions were right. Over the last year, three things have happened to set the table. First, the United States elected a president who openly offered to sit down with Kim Jong-un and negotiate. Kim had concluded midway through the Obama administration that the U.S. policy of strategic patience would require strategic patience on his end. North Korean analysts likely considered a Clinton administration would follow suit and that strategic patience on the part of Pyongyang would have to continue in the face of sanctions. But Trump presented the opportunity for engagement.
Second, and probably the most important piece of the puzzle, was the administration in Seoul. Since 2008, South Korean politics had been dominated by the conservatives, first under Lee Myung-bak and then by Park Geun-hye. Both administrations were more comfortable dictating the terms of engagement to Pyongyang. The terms for engagement were too high and would have forced North Korea to come to the table in a weakened position. With the political implosion of the Park administration and the election of the progressive administration of Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong-un saw a partner that could be engaged without surrendering his position. Given the eagerness of the Moon administration to engage, Kim likely felt he could exert a certain amount of control in the engagement process. President Moon would also be able to carry Pyongyang’s interests forward in facilitating relations with Washington, something that Kim could not do on his own without kowtowing to U.S. demands for upfront steps toward denuclearization.
The third piece of the puzzle is often put forward as the reason for Kim’s willingness to come to the negotiating table—he has been able to secure (in his mind) a minimum nuclear deterrent, which captured the United States’ attention and raised the urgency to solve the problem. In fact, North Korea’s rush in 2016 and 2017 to develop a nuclear deterrent was not the original plan, but a Plan B given the initial failure of diplomacy. While North Korea has had a dual-track strategy since Kim Jong-un came to power of diplomacy and development of a nuclear deterrent, they have been calibrated at different speeds. In the first part of his rule, Kim leaned heavily on diplomacy. After an initial period of demonstrating progress on his critical defense systems in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, Kim explored engagement with the United States and South Korea and was met with a united front demand for tangible steps toward denuclearization. For a leader who was still consolidating his power, this was a nonstarter. He refocused his diplomacy toward Japan and Russia in order to gain leverage, but this too failed. In an effort to restart diplomacy with Seoul, he manufactured the August 2015 crisis, but was once again met with the united front. The architect of this diplomatic strategy, Kim Yang-gon, mysteriously died in December 2015 and a new, bold brinkmanship policy unfolded in January 2016 with the fourth nuclear test.