In his New Year's Day address this year, Kim declared that the nuclear programs had been completed, so the government's focus now was on economics. He did not suggest that he had finished nuclear weapons development in order to give them away to his country's enemy. Instead, he suggested that making his nation secure would allow it to focus on economic growth.
His conduct since then is consistent with both undermining U.S. threats of war and ensuring that denuclearization would yield significant benefits. Kim has improved relations with the ROK’s left-leaning president, won Chinese backing by playing on Beijing’s fears of being left out, gained summit invitations from Moscow (and possibly from Tokyo), exploited an opening with America’s unconventional president, and pledged denuclearization, all on North Korea’s terms.
This approach has made it much harder for Washington to pivot back to “maximum pressure” and especially to threaten to turn Korea into a land of fire. The North ended its ceaseless rhetorical provocations and no longer sounds or looks dangerous. South Koreans see a peaceful future and are not inclined to let an irresponsible U.S. president start a war on their territory. No forbearance would be forthcoming from China or Russia to American military strikes. Nor could the president easily sell war to Americans he recently told that the North no longer was a threat.
Moreover, Kim created a complex process that could lead to denuclearization. Even before the summit, South Korea officials quoted him as saying “If we meet often and build trust with the United States, and if an end to the war and nonaggression are promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?” The (admittedly thin) summit agreement pledged creation of “new” relations and a “peace regime,” which were listed before denuclearization. If Kim is prepared to abandon his nukes (a huge, and in my view dubious, assumption), this order makes sense. He doesn’t want to end up like Muammar Gaddafi, ousted the moment Washington saw its opportunity.
The North's latest actions remain consistent with these objectives. President Trump is frustrated at the lack of speedy progress which he should never have expected. So he canceled a Pompeo trip to Pyongyang. Kim responded by assuring South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with whom a summit is imminent, that he remains committed to denuclearization. (South Korea's national security adviser quoted Kim as being "unequivocally committed to denuclearization.") The Supreme Leader mused about completing the process before the end of President Trump's first term, expressed his "unwavering trust" in the president, and sent a letter, presumably incorporating similar sentiments.
No cynical Korea hand would want to bet that the chairman, as the president calls his counterpart, really shares such sentiments (I mean, what American has “unwavering trust” in the president?). Indeed, Kim’s comments typically are filtered through South Koreans who desperately want to believe them. Nevertheless, Kim may have genuine cause for complaint. Vox’s Alex Ward reported that the president promised to sign an agreement formally ending the Korean War, which would undermine support for future unprovoked U.S. military action. But the administration has not followed through, which the North complained about in the lead-up to the cancellation of Pompeo’s trip. Furthermore, Pyongyang’s concerns could only be heightened by Bob Woodward’s report that after taking office the president requested a Pentagon plan for a preventive war against the DPRK.
Nevertheless, Kim’s continuing commitment to the diplomatic process ensures that any break will come from America, discouraging military action. Kim’s slow-motion strategy also pushes America to deepen the relationship, offering at least one sign that Washington might really have abandoned thoughts of regime change. Indeed, in response to Kim’s reported comments, the president tweeted: “Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”
Of course, just as President Clinton declared that “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” it now depends on what the meaning of the word ‘it’ is.
Complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), as Washington defines its objective, remains unlikely. It just is not in the interest of North Korea's present leadership. However, the administration should attempt to convince the Kim regime otherwise. Although doing so requires making concessions and following through on commitments. In any case, even the fruitless pursuit of CVID could lead to other benefits—limits on the DPRK threat as well as improvements in the security environment that make the use of force by any party far less likely.
North Korea remains one of the globe’s toughest foreign policy challenges. The United States should not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Against the advice of uber-hawks, including his administration’s own John Bolton, who has firmly advocated war against North Korea, President Trump has reduced the likelihood of conflict on the peninsula. He should continue down this peaceful path.