Guest Post by Ian Fleming, Member of IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime

On March 8 2018, Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean National Security Director, announced to the press at the White House in Washington that President Trump agreed to have direct talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Putting aside the cringe-worthy optics of Chung Eui-yong’s announcement of such a momentous move on the White House grounds without American diplomats, such a move would be an historical event. No serving American president has ever met with a North Korean leader. The U.S. and North Korea do not even have formal diplomatic relations. The meeting would be unprecedented. Past sitting U.S. presidents have avoided directly meeting with the Kim family to avoid legitimizing the ‘hermit kingdom’. Prior negotiations between the United States and North Korea happened following rigorous months and sometimes years of planning by U.S. administrations led by career politicians unlike Mr. Trump, a New York businessman with no prior experience in international negotiations of such significance.  

However, Mr. Trump’s decision to accept direct talks with Kim Jong-un erases foreign policy that the U.S. has followed since the Korean War, which ended in 1953. In as much as diplomacy remains the most favorable form of statecraft as compared to ‘fire and fury’, Mr. Trump has already conceded more to North Korea before the negotiations begin. But this is not to say all is completely lost, diplomacy is not a zero-sum game; therefore, all might not be completely lost for the United States. Foreign Policy’s Gramer & Tamkin (2018) note that while Trump is planning to meet with Kim in May, the State Department’s North Korea special representative, Joseph Yun, retired this month and Trump has yet to fill other key diplomatic posts, including the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. As of writing, Trump had fired his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, illustrating the unpreparedness of the Trump administration in carrying out diplomatic negotiations of such a magnitude by May 2018.

Over the years, North Korea has managed to outplay and outwit the U.S.-ROK alliance, a strategy that I expect it is using currently.  The Kim regime assumes the role of a willing participant and it strings along South Korea as its patsy. Because South Korea is still holding hope for a possible de facto unification of the Korean Peninsula and driven by the Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy of 1997, the ROK remains a soft target that North Korea can use. North Korea realizes the weaknesses of South Korea, and they use these weaknesses to create an environment in which they pretend to want negotiations to end the nuclear program. I describe North Korea’s tactic as a form of ‘pretense negotiation strategy’ aimed at creating a façade that North Korea is not the enemy. Falsely claiming that it wants to negotiate denuclearization gives North Korea time. At this point, it would be a flight of fancy to assume that a regime that is formed on the basis of acquiring nuclear capability would want to give its nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles away at a point when they have made significant progress in building and acquiring them. In past months, the U.S. President has called Kim Jong-un- crazy, mad, insane and “little rocket man” and most experts on North Korea have labelled him irrational. The opposite is true, Kim Jong-un is a rational leader and his pursuit for ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S. should not be called crazy — that is an underestimation of North Korea ruler.

From Kim Il-sung (the founding father of North Korea) to Kim Jong-il, the Kim family has illustrated in every negotiation that it wants direct bilateral talks with the United States. Bilateral negotiations validate what the Kim family has proclaimed for years — that only a nuclear armed North Korea would be treated with respect and as an equal by Washington. The alliance has put itself in a position where it is about to validate North Korea as a nuclear power, a position that North Korea has craved: to be given the same status as the U.S. There is no doubt that the Kim regime is going to use this opportunity to solidify its rule and as a propaganda tool. The sudden willingness to engage with South Korea, to participate in the Olympics, and to invite a delegation from the South to meet with Kim himself — all of these actions were a strategic build up in restructuring North Korea as a party that is willing to seat down and discuss possible denuclearization.

Warming up to South Korea is a strategy that North Korea used during the Agreed Framework of 1994 (an agreement that experts had a consensus in agreeing that it was the closest Washington came to a successful deal with North Korea) and the Six Party Talks negotiations of 2003-2007. When North Korea wants something from the U.S., it has always cozied up to South Korea perhaps realizing that South Korea is in an alliance partnership with the U.S. For instance, in 2000, Jo Myong Rok, a senior North Korean military leader, visited Washington to meet President Bill Clinton following positive signs in Pyongyang’s talks with South Korea, even though North Korea mislead the U.S. and South Korea that it was not pursuing a uranium enrichment program.

South Korea is made into part of the North grand strategy which it has blindly fallen for and will continue falling for. However, South Korea has also often been used by North Korea to weaken the U.S.-ROK alliance. North Korea does this deliberately, especially when it notices that the rhetoric against North Korea from the U.S. might be escalating faster than it would have wanted. Prior to Trump’s decision to meet with North Korea, he had promised ‘fire and fury’ against Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un realized that amidst Trump’s war rhetoric reaching a maximal pitch, he only had to buy time against a perceived risk of a pre-emptive attack by the United States through accepting negotiations to denuclearize. Thus, CNBC’s Deepak Malhotra (2018) points out that North Korea’s goal in accepting dialogue was to lower the temperature long enough so that things do not get out of hand before North Korea is fully prepared. Therefore, at this point the North Korean nuclear proliferation observers and analysts cannot argue that North Korea might denuclearize.

If the historic negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong-un come to pass, Trump and South Korea should realize that based on history, the Kim family will lie and will continue building and developing their nuclear capability. Moreover, they would demand concessions from the United States, yet they won’t offer any — they will walk out and in of negotiations to time delay the negotiation process, give excuses, and offer reasons why the U.S. is the reason for the lack of progress. These tactics were successfully used by North Korea leading to the Agreed Framework (which eventually broke down) to the Six Party Talks which collapsed following an impasse over granting international inspectors permission to visit nuclear sites in North Korea. Historical evidence of negotiating North Korea’s denuclearization shows a pattern of behavior from the ‘hermit kingdom’. However, with every U.S. administration that has attempted to close a deal that would finally result in denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, one thing is common: there is always a fleeting chance of success followed by failure. There is no evidence (especially if the events of the past moths are taken into consideration) that North Korea had given up its determination to be a nuclear weapons state.