North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's seemingly warm speech might just be a clever gimmick aimed at extracting concessions and creating a rift between the US and South Korea .
The international media is abuzz with North Korea’s recent outreach to South Korea. In his annual New Year’s address, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un offered to resume talks with the South, re-open a hotline between the two countries, and participate in the upcoming Olympics in South Korea next month. The latter is particularly appealing to South Korea, because North Korean participation would ensure that North Korea won't try to disrupt the games as it tried before South Korea’s last Olympics in 1988.
And indeed, some movement has occurred. The hotline has been restored, and the South Koreans have proposed to begin talks shortly. The South Korean media is fairly excited too. Commentators have already started proposing agenda items, the most pressing of which is, of course, the nuclear program.
Should Kim Jong-un be indulged?
Talks with North Korea are indeed a good idea, and the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is wise to reach for them. North Korea has rarely been at the bargaining table in the last decade. If the North genuinely wants talks, they should be accomodated.
North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world, and its possession of nuclear weapons makes it even more so. Outsiders have growing fears about just how many nuclear weapons the North intends to build, what its doctrine for their use is, how the program is maintained and secured, and so on.
There is much anxiety about North Korean safety protocols, the possibility it might proliferate nuclear technology for cash, or the possibility of a Chernobyl-style incident from its expanding nuclear base. The world should jump at any chance to re-engage.
But as the commander of US forces in Korea said in the midst of the recent hubbub, it is important to manage expectations and be realistic about North Korea’s likely approach to talks and its goals.
North Korea has spent two decades digging itself deeper and deeper into isolation despite regular efforts by the US, China, and South Korea to engage it. It has flouted UN resolutions. It has launched countless provocations, large and small, against South Korea, such as hacking its institutions and attacking its soldiers. Its human rights record remains appalling, and its criminal activities, such as counterfeiting and insurance fraud, roll on.
Kim Jong-un, who took power in 2011, has not changed any of these long-standing regime characteristics. He is turning out to be just as vicious as his father and grandfather before him.
One trait all the the Kims have in common is a wholly instrumental attitude toward talks with outsiders. When it is has suited North Korea’s interest to violate agreements, it has. Indeed, this is why the US scarcely engages North Korea anymore. It has found the North to be such a regular cheater on arrangements – most recently in 2012’s ‘Leap Day Deal’ – that Washington no longer bothers to even try. Hence the tepid US response this week.
Perhaps this time is different. We should certainly try to find out. We should not go the route of the ultras in Donald Trump’s administration. Voices like the president himself or UN Ambassador Nikki Haley would not even have us talk to the North, instead emphasizing military coercion as Trump did again this week with his ‘big nuclear button’ tweet. This is extremely dangerous, as North Korea is highly unlikely to fold under Trumpian bluster, and the costs of a regional conflict if Trump and Kim stumble their way into a war would enormous. Possibly more than a million would die, especially if the North were to use its nuclear weapons to defend itself against a strike.
What do South Korea and the US stand to lose?
On the other hand, the timing and content of the North Korean proposal strongly suggest it is a bad faith maneuver.
Every New Year’s annual address from the Northern leader suggests better relations with South Korea. A short time later though, the North will test a nuclear weapon or missile, and the goodwill evaporates. Or in the late spring, when US-South Korean exercises commence, the North will threaten war in response, and any remaining momentum dissipates. In short, we have seen this before, and to date it has just been rhetoric.
This year’s circumstances make the outreach look even more like a Northern stratagem.
The Olympics are coming up, and the South is desperate for them to go off well. The whole world will be watching, and South Koreans deeply dislike how North Korea has hijacked Korea’s global reputation. The government greatly wants a smooth Olympics and will likely make concessions to the North to get its participation to insure that.
Similarly, the Trump administration has spent a year threatening the North and seeking to isolate it. South Korea, under a liberal president, has grudgingly gone along, but the public here loathes Donald Trump and strongly opposes a war against the North.
The South, not the United States, would carry the lion’s share of the costs of any conflict. So the gap between the US – with belligerent right winger Donald Trump at the helm, and South Korea – with dovish engager Moon Jae-in in charge – on how to approach North Korea is wide. North Korea just smartly stepped into that gap and widened it.
Indeed, the North’s Olympic bid could seriously set the US and South Korea against each other. It is hard to imagine, after 2017, the US and North Korea participating in a joint event. Indeed, if the North Korean athletes were allowed to march under their own flag, I wonder if the US (or Japan) would even attend. This was a wise ploy by Kim Jong-un.
That said, all this will likely amount to nothing. The US-South Korea alliance is almost seventy years old and has withstood far greater shocks than Kim Jong-un’s devices. The talks may happen, but given how often the North has tried to game previous talks for aid or hand-outs, I would imagine that will happen here too. Northern participation, or a gimmick and an effort to extract concessions like cash or rice just for showing up at the talks, will likely cause a collapse.
The US and South Korea have learned not to reward North Korea just for a willingness to talk, insisting instead on actual progress on real issues like nuclear weapons or human rights.
Given that North Korea almost certainly does not want to bargain on these major issues – it clearly wants to keep its nukes, and it does not want to liberalise – I predict the new talks will eventually fall apart with no substantive breakthrough, regardless of whether the North comes to the Olympics or not.
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