See More on Facebook

Analysis, Diplomacy

Is Trump Being Played in Kim’s Survival Game?

North Korea’s Kim relies on an old playbook with new concessions, luring Trump into a rushed, haphazard meeting.

Written by

Updated: +00

Kim Jong-un’s verbal statement expressing willingness to open denuclearization talks with the United States and Donald Trump’s surprising acceptance of the invitation to meet as soon as May suddenly eased fears of nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula. But this dramatic sequence of events, full of mystery and hope, carries elements of instability with the potential of derailing the negotiating process aimed at denuclearization of the peninsula. North Korea’s record of duplicity inspires little trust in this latest proposal, and Kim’s nuclear and missile capability has moved too far along to think that he might negotiate it away for a price. Given endless tensions emanating from the unpredictable regime for two decades, it’s inconceivable that Washington or Seoul would accept a partial settlement leaving North Korea’s nuclear arsenal frozen, if not defanged.

Kim’s statement follows the peaceful mood of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and the US ignoring Kim’s bid for dialogue. So, Kim moved from supporting the China-endorsed “double-freeze” formula – a proposition under which he would suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US halting annual military exercises – to the US demand for outright denuclearization. His goal is in question, whether this is another trap for buying time or whether the nation is buckling under US-led global economic sanctions. Japanese officials suggest that increasingly effective sanctions, including marine interdiction operations against ship-to-ship oil transshipments involving Chinese vessels, have forced Kim to change his strategy.

 Tightening sanctions on his puny economy is not the only factor. The Trump administration’s tough stance in which military options figure prominently, with the United States considering “preemptive” or “surgical strikes” at the North’s major targets, has sobered Kim. The United States has deployed numerous strategic assets such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-capable Stealth fighters capable of flying deep into the North’s territory. Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on the regime may have had the desired effect of forcing Kim rethink his options. Many South Korean experts suggest that the North is highly sensitive to the kind of saber-rattling it uses for propaganda. The North fears an attack so much so that Kim has bolstered his personal security teams against a “decapitation” attempt. For a regime that devotes time to reading Washington tea leaves, the exodus of US diplomats opposing the use of force likely did not escape Kim’s attention.
 Still, Kim’s proposal on denuclearization is long on propaganda and short on substance. Ambassador Chung Eui-yong, President Moon Jae In’s chief national security advisor who led a five-member delegation to Pyongyang, sat for four hours with Kim, taking notes but not engaging in probing conversation or raising hard questions on the 5-point proposal. Over dinner, Kim said he was willing to talk denuclearization with the United States, would suspend nuclear and missile tests while talks were underway, and would not mind – “understand” is the term he used – the United States and South Korea proceeding with scheduled military exercises as talks continued. Summing up the discussion, he repeated the standard propaganda line that “there is no reason for the North to maintain its nuclear arsenal if military threats against it were removed, and security of his regime guaranteed.” As US Vice President Mike Pence is said to have reacted, Washington is being shown the same old movie again.

In Seoul, independent analysts are dismayed that neither Chung nor others at the dinner probed Kim for details, such as whether he is ready to accept inspections of nuclear facilities. “The key issue is not declaration of intent,” and Chung left Kim off the hook, according to Korea University Professor Kim Sung Han, who has spent decades studying North Korea. The devil is in the details, and the North has a history of reneging on promises by rejecting inspection and verification. The US insists on a complete formula called CVID – Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization. From the 1992 inter-Korean Basic Treaty to the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Six Party Agreement, North Korea has broken every agreement on its denuclearization accords.

Surprisingly, neither Chung nor Suh Hoon, Seoul’s national intelligence chief, also at the dinner, asked for a formal, documented statement affirming Kim’s talking points. They jotted down his statements by hand in a notebook, the only record on which to base Kim’s remarks, leaving room for later repudiation. Nor, for that matter, was it clear if Trump’s agreement to meet rests on a formal invitation from Kim or whether it was relayed by Chung by word of mouth.

South Korea’s security was relegated to footnote status as Kim and the envoys spent most of the time talking about US–North Korean relations. Almost as sop to Seoul, Kim said he would meet with Moon in April at the Panmunjom armistice village, what would be his first face-to-face talk with a South Korean leader. Almost tongue in cheek, Kim said the North would refrain from attacking the South with “nuclear or conventional weapons,” a moot point given the US–South Korean alliance. No apology was made for the North Korean torpedo attack in 2000 that sank the South Korean Navy corvette with 46 men or a subsequent artillery barrage against Paengnyong Island killing civilian farmers.

 For the moment, Kim appears set on resuming contacts with Seoul to fight the tightening economic sanctions expected to cost his regime up to 90 percent of its export earnings from coal, fish and textiles. China’s halfhearted participation makes resumption of ties with Seoul more pressing. With each missile launch costing tens of millions of dollars, the North is desperate for cash to buy parts and food. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, Kim is in dire straits after directing no fewer than 84 missile launches and four underground nuclear tests since 2012, with the last nuclear test thought to be a thermonuclear or hydrogen type of bomb.
 Ironically, South Korea’s two decades of détente policy and aid programs worth US$10 billion, including a US$500 million bribe Kim Dae Jung paid Kim Jong-il for 2000 summit talks, have inadvertently helped fund the North’s nuclear program, according to some estimates. “South Korea virtually stopped the North’s collapse with its economic aid,” is the assessment by Hwang Jang Yop, a top North Korean party figure who escaped to Seoul in 1997.

Much about this rushed and haphazard meeting remains a mystery. The North has not informed its 25 million people about the proposed summit, and many South Koreans worry about Trump pouncing on an ill-advised deal. Probably in response to such concerns, Suh Hoon said during a newspaper interview that Seoul will be in the driver’s seat on the summit process, but that questions like withdrawal of US troops from South Korea or proposed changes in the current alliance structure will not be the subject of concessions.

Kim may not accept such limits. For two decades, the North has not wavered from the idea that a nuclear arsenal constitutes its last pillar of survival with a nuclear state enshrined in its state constitution since 2012. Kim has taken to reminding top officials of the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after giving up their nuclear programs. For North Korea, though, a nuclear arsenal is also “the chief instrument for attaining reunification of the peninsula under its terms,” says Yoon Dok Min, veteran head of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. In short, Kim cannot give up the nuclear program without risking his family’s role in a reunified Korea – a point Trump should consider in preparing to deal with Kim.

(This article was written by Shim Jae Hoon and originally appeared in Yale Global Online.)

Enjoyed this story? Share it.

Yale Global Online
About the Author: YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the International and Area Studies program at Yale.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia

Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.

By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Analysis, Diplomacy

Swift assistance needed to rehabilitate Hokkaido’s quake-stricken industries

To realize Hokkaido’s post-quake rehabilitation, it is indispensable to rebuild its industries. A half month has passed since the Hokkaido earthquake, which registered the highest level on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. A power blackout that spread to all parts of the prefecture has been resolved. The No. 1 unit at the Tomato-Atsuma thermal power plant — a facility that plays a central role in the supply of electricity there — has been brought back on line. The government has withdrawn its request for power-saving, and neon lighting has returned to flourishing areas in Sapporo. However, scars from the earthquake have not yet healed. Even if the amount of direct damage, including that caused to roads, rivers and forest land, is calculated alone, the figure exceeds ¥150 billion. There are still many disaster victims in evacuation centers. T

By The Japan News
September 25, 2018

Analysis, Diplomacy

Maldives strongman Abdulla Yameen in shock election defeat

The Maldivian election was watched closely as an indicator of China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. Maldives strongman Abdulla Yameen’s hopes for a second presidential term were dashed on September 24 with opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeating him in the country’s elections. After a months-long sweeping crackdown on the opposition and a brief state of emergency imposed by the autocratic Yameen, the election on September 23 was preceded by a bitter campaign during which opposition leaders frequently accused the ruling regime of rights abuses and oppression. Several independent news websites reported that after the counting of a majority of the votes, Solih had won more than 58 per cent of the votes to 41 per cent for Yameen. Hours after the emergence of the informal results, Yameen conceded defeat to Solih during a televised news conference, saying: “Mal

By Lamat R Hasan
September 25, 2018

Analysis, Diplomacy

Ending Rohingya Crisis: Bangladesh tables 3 proposals at UN meeting

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday made three recommendations for solving the Rohingya crisis at its root while at the UN meeting in New York. According to her second recommendation, Myanmar must create a conducive environment by building trust and guaranteeing protection, rights and pathway to citizenship for all Rohingyas. If needed, it should create a “safe zone” inside the country to protect all civilians. Her third recommendation says atrocious crimes against Rohingyas in Myanmar should be prevented by bringing accountability and justice, particularly in the light of recommendations of the Fact-Finding Mission of the UN Human Rights Council. The PM was speaking at a high-level event on the “Global Compact on Refugees: A Model for Greater Solidarity and Cooperation” at the UN headquarters in New York. “In Bangladesh, now we’re faced with the largest forced mov

By Daily Star
September 25, 2018

Analysis, Diplomacy

Moon, Trump discuss ‘corresponding measures’ for NK denucelarization

South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived in New York on Sunday for a bilateral summit with US President Donald Trump that is partly aimed at brokering a second US-North Korea summit. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump on Monday discussed possible ways to reward North Korea for its denuclearization measures that will apparently include a second US-North Korea summit. “The leaders agreed to continue communicating closely about corresponding measures,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. In their bilateral summit held in New York, the leaders of South K

By The Korea Herald
September 25, 2018

Analysis, Diplomacy

Thai seafood giant to address slavery issues at UN

Thailand’s progress in promoting human rights in the fishing industry will be addressed in a panel session on modern slavery and human trafficking at the United Nations General Assembly by seafood giants Thai Union. Darian McBain, global director of sustainability for the Thai Union Group, will address the panel on the topic of “Stepping up Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking”. “Thailand has made a number of advances on human rights, which should be commended, but there is more work to be done and I believe Thailand has the opportunity b

By The Nation (Thailand)
September 24, 2018

Analysis, Diplomacy

Opinion: One Belt, One Road: We must secure our interest

Shah Husain Imam argues in the Daily Star that Bangladesh must put its interests first in joining China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. The ancient Silk Road, of which the Belt and Road Initiative is a gigantic new avatar, dates back to the Chinese Han Dynasty’s westward expansion more than 2100 years ago. The Road derived its name from the lucrative silk trade along the routes through which it branched into what are today the central Asian countries Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, as well as present-day Pakistan and India to the south. These routes eventually spanned 4,000 miles to Europe. Interestingly, silk was regarded as more precious than gold as a commodity in those times as if to convey the misty romanticism with the old world charm about a fine fabric. At any rate, the Silk Road by no means offered silken smooth passage to travellers like Marco P

By Daily Star
September 21, 2018