Consider the global chessboard from Pyongyang’s point of view. As the year 2018 began, the North Korean state was on a knife-edge: though it had just achieved momentous advances, it also faced potentially disastrous setbacks.
Over the course of 2017, Pyongyang celebrated not only another atomic test, but it also celebrated a thermonuclear test—the makings of a hydrogen bomb. It also successfully launched an ICBM that would put the entire U.S. homeland within range, according to Kim Jong-un.
Indeed, in his annual New Year speech earlier this year, Kim declared that the era of testing was largely complete, and that North Korea would be moving forward with mass production of missiles and nukes. Thus, a government commanding a GDP not nearly as large as (say) Baltimore’s would soon be able to threaten Washington, DC with nuclear annihilation. By the strategic calculus that animates the Kim family regime, that qualified as an imminent historic triumph.
But that prospective triumph remains in jeopardy—because North Korea’s drive for global nuclear reach has been met with an international pressure campaign that might undo these gains, and even threaten the stability of the North Korean state.
Each round of North Korean nuclear tests has elicited increasingly severe sanctions resolutions from the UN Security Council, and has seemingly expanded and solidified the international coalition intent on penalizing Pyongyang for its violations. Even Beijing—the Kim dynasty’s longtime financial backer and de facto international defense lawyer—appears to be wavering in its support. Since the extraordinarily distorted North Korean economy is uniquely vulnerable to international economic sanctions, a sustained “maximum pressure” campaign worthy of the name could eventually paralyze the DPRK economy as well as undercut the war efforts that eat up so much of North Korea’s material and financial resources.
To build upon its impressive 2017 breakthroughs, and simultaneously prevent its newly favorable strategic circumstances from being undermined, it is now imperative—from Pyongyang’s standpoint—that North Korea break apart the international-sanctions campaign that has risen to counter the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions.
And this is exactly what North Korea’s diplomatic pageantry at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics these past few days was all about.
North Korean leadership evidently judges the weakest link in the “maximum pressure” chain to be South Korea—or more specifically, the government of current ROK president Moon Jae-in.
By sending the South a high-level DPRK delegation—nominally headed by nonagenarian titular head of state Kim Yong-nam, but most crucially including the Royal Sister, Kim Yo-jong—Pyongyang is gambling that it can mastermind a diplomatic process that will entice the Moon administration to break ranks on sanctions, punch a hole in the U.S.-ROK alliance, and grant the DPRK the “breathing space” it sorely needs to complete its nuke-missile quest, the necessary precondition before moving on to the next and perhaps even more consequential level of its contest against America and the ROK.
The notion that any South Korean government might serve as an accomplice—even an unwitting one—in Pyongyang’s long-term designs will probably strike most foreign readers as unfathomable and absurd. It is neither of these. For good or ill, North Korean decisionmakers have good reason to view South Korea as the soft underbelly of the international constellation of forces arrayed against it today.
History helps explain this seeming paradox. At the state level, the Korean Peninsula can be seen as the battleground in an ongoing, still-unfinished civil war. But a civil war of sorts also continues within South Korea, too, this one playing out in domestic politics. The political cleavage within South Korea is typically described as left/right or progressive/conservative, but it is much deeper than this: for it turns on views about the authenticity and legitimacy of the contending Korean governments.
On the Korean left, there are those who still regard the current South Korean constitutional democracy’s roots in postwar military dictatorship as an irredeemable “original sin”—and who likewise see the overarching role of Pax Americana in the ROK’s survival and fluorescence as, at very least, a cause for deep ambivalence. In these same circles, few if any may maintain an intellectual romance with the real existing North Korean state—but more than a few preserve a vestigial respect for the North as the “pure” Korea, uncompromised by globalism and unsullied by collaboration with historical enemies like Japan (or in the eyes of some: America).
As fate would have it, President Moon’s government is drawn squarely from South Korea’s progressive camp—which means that many of its principals come from the South’s “old New Left.” These circles carry a lot of historical baggage. Im Jong-seok, President Moon’s chief of staff, was a student organizer for South Korean dissident participation in Pyongyang’s 1989 “Festival of Youth and Students”—North Korea’s propaganda counter to Seoul’s 1988 Olympics. President Moon himself was long involved with “Minbyun,” an organization of progressive lawyers whose activities have included attempts to unmask the identities of North Korean defectors to the South.