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!”
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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.”