We Need to Test Our Assumptions About North Korea

We Need to Test Our Assumptions About North Korea

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 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. [1] 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.

Kim Jong-un most likely came to the conclusion that the only way to ensure success on the diplomatic front was to escalate to de-escalate. If that were to be the case, the fundamental calculus would have to change. North Korea would have to force its way to the negotiating table from a position of strength. This meant it needed to demonstrate a viable nuclear program that would cause concern in the capitals of its adversaries. It would also be the means by which Kim would demonstrate his legitimacy as leader. By burnishing his national security bona fides, Kim was able to announce the advent of a new era (his era) at the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016 from a strong footing. He was the leader who would take regime change off the table and by doing so, open the pathway to the solution for the economic side of Byungjin. A year and a half later, he had conducted two more nuclear tests and a bevy of IRBM, MRBM and ICBM tests. In November 2017, Kim announced that North Korea had a viable nuclear deterrent. Now it was time to de-escalate, which began with his 2018 New Year’s Day speech.

Therefore, as North Korea recently reminded U.S. policymakers and pundits in a Rodong Sinmun editorial, the Maximum Pressure strategy did not bring Kim to the table. On the contrary, Kim brought the international community to the negotiating table by the force of his nuclear program. U.S. negotiators need to understand that Kim has the mindset of an equal and will not roll over on equities he feels are vital to his two primary objectives: regime survival and perpetuation of Kim family rule.

The other set of assumptions that the Pyongyang watching community wrestles with is what does Kim want and what is he willing to give up to get it. Here is where the community’s assumptions are the most hardwired and based on decades of analyzing the North Korean regime. The assumption is that Kim’s ultimate objective is reunification on North Korea’s terms, which will come about by pushing U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula and bending Seoul to Pyongyang’s will. As such, Kim is coming to the summit armed with a strategy of obfuscation and delay, not willing to give up much and stretching any solution far into the future. In the meantime, he will work on driving a wedge between the conservative administration in Washington and the progressive administration in Seoul, as well as playing on the fundamental political divides inside the South Korean body politic.

This is where some long held beliefs need to be challenged. From an aspirational point of view, the above might represent Kim Jong-un’s deepest held desires. But from a practical point of view, they appear out of touch with the reality Kim is faced with. North Korea no longer has the leverage or capability to reunify the peninsula on its own terms. Even if U.S. forces up and left the peninsula on their own accord and progressives laid flowers from the DMZ to Seoul, North Korea could still not pull off this dream. North Korea has no resources to consolidate its rule in the South. If North Korea is not willing to open up its doors to the outside world for fear of external influence, how will it exert control over the most wired country in the world? In addition, it is highly unlikely that the progressives in Seoul would willingly turn over the country to North Korea once the United States had left. If North Korea wanted a fight, they would face a formidable foe in the ROK armed forces. With U.S. forces no longer held in check on the peninsula by North Korea’s conventional deterrent, the United States would become a much more unpredictable and dangerous threat from afar. Just as important, once the United States had left the peninsula, North Korea’s role as an ally and wedge on the peninsula for China would disappear. Beijing’s calculus would likely change. Lips and teeth be damned. China would likely become more aggressive in ensuring stability on the peninsula, and not in Pyongyang’s favor. Kim Jong-un would find himself trapped between two threats and no ally to be found. His strategic vulnerability would far exceed his current position. So, this notion that Kim Jong-un is basing his current strategy off of some nefarious plan to reunify the peninsula is likely not the case. North Korea traded the goal of reunification for regime survival in the 1990s and not much has changed since then.

If it is not reunification on North Korea’s terms, then what is Kim Jong-un’s ultimate objective? Again, we need to go back to his two overriding objectives of regime survival and perpetuation of Kim family rule. These objectives drive his need for a nuclear deterrent. They also drive his need for diplomacy. There were rumors that emerged in the days before Kim Jong-il died about his last will and testament. He allegedly told his son and heir apparent that the Korean Peninsula could no longer be reunited by force. He told Kim Jong-un that he could not trust China, but needed to find a way to engage South Korea and use the South Korean economic engine to realize the strong and prosperous nation in the North. Otherwise, it is unlikely that the center would hold inside North Korea. Exactly what Pyongyang’s calculus was, or more importantly the Kim family’s calculus was, in 2011 is hard to tell. Many analysts speculated that within a decade, if the economic situation was not dealt with and the growing expectations of the moneyed elite (the so-called donju) were not realized, the role of the Supreme Leader could be threatened—maybe through a coup, but more likely by being marginalized as powerful forces push the ineffectual, young leader aside.

This explains why Kim Jong-un has been biding his time until a progressive administration took power in Seoul. Even though he put out engagement feelers when President Park came to power, it was not until Moon Jae-in was elected that Kim’s plan began to take shape. Critical to this plan was overcoming the hurdle raised by Moon that any improvement in inter-Korean relations would be based on an improvement in North Korea’s relations with Washington. So what happens? After reaching a certain milestone with his nuclear deterrent, Kim pauses and begins to move away from his absolutist position on the nuclear program in order to court the United States. Why? Because the path to Seoul goes through Washington. What the Pyongyang watching community often misses when looking at Kim Jong-un’s signature policy of Byungjin is that it is not the nuclear, but the economic side of Byungjin that drives the overall strategy. In his inaugural speech on April 15, 2012 (the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth), Kim Jong-un unveiled his vision for the future. He talked about the people no longer having to tighten their belts. With Seoul and Washington as his partners, Kim can loosen the country’s belt in a calibrated way and not under threat, which he would likely be forced to do once the sanctions begin to really bite.

But what is Kim Jong-un willing to give up to achieve this strong and prosperous future? This is where near unanimity of opinion resides within the Pyongyang watching community—at least for now. It is hard to envision Kim Jong-un destroying a nuclear program that the regime has given up so much for. This is a program that stretches back to the 1950s. After Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, North Korea realized that the only assurance against regime change is a viable nuclear deterrent. Chemical weapons, once presumed to serve this role, were ineffective in staving off a vengeful United States. Equities inside the North Korean regime, from the military to the Party, also suggest that Kim Jong-un would face significant opposition to wholesale destruction and dismantling of the program. And once the program is gone, how much can Kim Jong-un trust the United States and the international community to not engage in regime change as they did in Libya and Iraq? These concerns most likely shape Kim Jong-un’s definition of denuclearization as a slow, phased process, which is tied to incentives and guarantees all along the way.

That is the current thinking. But there are indications and theories that Kim Jong-un might have something else in mind. It’s true he has floated the idea of a phased, incentive-based process of denuclearization. He has voiced this to President Moon during the summit. He has voiced it to Xi Jinping in both of the summits he has held in China just before and after the inter-Korean summit. He has apparently even voiced it to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his most recent trip to Pyongyang. If he can secure buy in for this way ahead that serves his interests best. But what if the United States needs more? This is where Kim Jong-un probably has a Plan B that will play to the U.S. demands for CVID (Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—or even the more onerous PVID (Permanent, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement). The Trump administration had made it clear that these demands were not negotiable before the secretary of state’s most recent trip to Pyongyang. Despite the apparent gap between U.S. and North Korean definitions of denuclearization, the summit has been set to take place in Singapore on June 12. Assuming neither side wants to walk away from a failed summit, how can they bridge this gap? This is where conventional wisdom inside the Pyongyang watching community collides with what might be a fundamental shift in North Korean thinking.

Kim Jong-un realizes that CVID is impossible to achieve unless the regime collapses or is taken over by outside powers. This introduces ambiguity into the international community’s understanding of the situation. It creates the space for both sides, North Korea and the United States, to declare victory. Instead of playing for a freeze, Kim may be willing to take bold steps that appear for all the world to see that he is not resorting to his father’s old play book. He is not working a bait and switch. He is not selling the world the same horse twice. He began to lay this plan in the run up to the inter-Korean summit when he withdrew demands that joint U.S.-ROK exercises cease and that U.S. troops leave the peninsula. This essentially took China’s preferred strategy of freeze-for-freeze off the table. This was an indication that Kim, not Beijing, was in the driver’s seat. It also was designed to send a signal to Seoul and Washington that their well-worn assumptions about Pyongyang’s calculus were no longer valid. In recent days, the North Korean media has publicly announced to its own people that the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri would be dismantled—following on from Kim Jong-un’s own earlier statement in April that nuclear testing had concluded.

This sets up a strategy for the June 12 summit in which President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will announce a grand proclamation of denuclearization based not on CVID, but CVIG (Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Guarantee) of dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Kim may agree to significant steps upfront on dismantling parts of his nuclear program. President Trump, for his part, will agree to a phased approach based on the understanding of a guarantee by Kim that the eventual conclusion will be a complete dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program. [2] As noted earlier, as long as the regime stays in place, CVID is not entirely possible. Therefore, a “nukes in the basement” deterrent remains in place. In other words, it is possible for North Korea to maintain an unstated turnkey program and defacto nuclear deterrent that is implicitly understood on all sides, but is not talked about. If the international community falls short on its commitment to provide significant economic and security guarantees, North Korea can always restart the program—at least for the foreseeable future. [3]

If the summit occurs on June 12, we are going to learn whether we are standing on the precipice of history or whether what appears to be a long-awaited opportunity is lost. Going into the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the experts are gob smacked by what has taken place over the last month, but at the same time very leery about North Korea’s true motivations. Much of the debate in the Pyongyang watching community revolves around long-held assumptions that can’t let go of the notion that somehow the international community is being played. These assumptions don’t make much room for the argument that Kim Jong-un for a lot of reasons ranging from legitimacy to resources has come to the conclusion that the strategies of his father and grandfather no longer work. He is thirty-four years old and he needs to think long term and not rely on tactical shifts. As such, he is faced with two questions. How do I secure my two fundamental objectives of regime survival and perpetuation of Kim family rule? How do I have my cake and eat it too when it comes to Byungjin? The answer is a grand bargain. Any other arguments, such as reunification and getting U.S. forces off the peninsula, are nothing but noise.

Ken E. Gause is Director of the International Affairs Group at CNA Corporation and author of North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics in the Kim Jong-un Era.

[1] North Korea’s recent threats to pull out of the summit have only hardened these views in the minds of many.

[2] Even if the United States adheres to its promise of no economic aid until complete denuclearization is achieved, indications are that Xi Jinping agreed at Dalian that China would provide assistance during the process as long as an agreement was struck between the Trump and Kim.

[3] It is possible that this plan is what Kim had in mind, but it only works if the United States is on board. Kim’s recent threat to withdraw from the summit is likely the result of apparent U.S. backsliding on the terms of denuclearization. President Trump’s soothing words about a long-term process and respect for Kim Jong-un have been replaced by hardline statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who have reiterated upfront CVID (along the lines of the Libya model) and expanding the definition of denuclearization to include North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs. To Kim, this likely looks like moving the goal posts which were likely established in his recent discussions with Pompeo. The Max Thunder exercise provided a convenient foil for North Korea to cry foul and try to get the United States to clearly articulate its requirements going into the summit.

Image: Reuters