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.

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.