The last few months have seen some surprising developments on the Korean peninsula. ‘Rocket man’ Kim and ‘Fire and Fury’ Trump are preparing to actually talk, and so are Kim and Moon, the head of the South Korean ‘Puppet Regime’. What is going on?
Nobody can look into the head of the North Korean leader, but it is tempting to try. Those who have been sceptical all along see it as just another game that Kim is playing. The ‘glass is half full’ types see it as a victory for peace.
It is certainly worth a prayer of thanksgiving that war has been averted so far. And we continue to pray for peace for both Koreas. But the battle has not been won yet, and as relationships in the region enter a new phase, there are important things to keep in mind.
First of all, whatever Kim has done so far, both nationally and internationally, was done to strengthen his position and secure his regime’s survival. Now he comes to the table on his own initiative. This implies that he expects that these negotiations too will help him reach his goal of strengthening his rule. For this reason, we can safely assume that these negotiations will not result in Kim allowing the people of North Korea greater political and religious freedom, because the Kim regime can only survive by using fear, repression and full control of the people.
Secondly, these negotiations come after Kim has developed missile capabilities that put all his enemies within reach of his nukes, at least according to his own regime. Previously, there was not much they could bring to the table in talks with the US. Kim knew he had no economic or political leverage. Now that North Korea can bring severe damage to US territory, he feels confident enough to talk.The question is whether he will use his nukes only as a protection of his regime or also as a way to blackmail the US with threats into concessions.
Thirdly, North Korea’s economy continues to struggle, and there have been sanctions, even implemented by China, that have hurt. Now, people starving to death has never been a great concern for the regime. But stability must be maintained, and there must be sufficient cash to keep the supporters of the regime happy and comfortable. It is not directly in Kim’s interest that all North Koreans thrive, but the elite has to have access to the luxuries that will keep them from starting to think about defecting to the South.
Lastly, North Korea does not want war. If they had wanted it, they could have had it by now. Again, regime survival is the goal, and war would not help achieve that. War would only be desirable from North Korea’s viewpoint if it either could be won and lead to a unified Korea under Kim’s leadership (unlikely) or if the regime had nothing to lose (not yet the case).
So what does Kim hope to win with these negotiations? There are several possibilities. First of all, an ego boost. Kim is meeting with the big guys. This will strengthen his position at home. The North Korean regime desperately wants attention, recognition, and to be taken seriously by the world powers. They do not want to play in the little league. Back home, it will be easy to spin these meetings into the direct result of the nuclear program, framing it in a way that make the world powers seem afraid of North Korea, and this will likely boost support for Kim’s ‘military first’ policy.
Throughout its history, the North Korean regime has proven itself experts in playing out world powers against each other. With the new nuke card, they can give this game a boost. And it seems to be working already. As soon as Kim announced he was going to talk to the US, China invited him, and a meeting was arranged immediately. China does not like to be kept out of the loop. They do not want the US to gain influence, but rather want to pull the strings themselves. Negotiations with the US, regardless of the outcome, put pressure on China to mend ties with North Korea.
With a more or less proven nuclear capability, North Korea can resume their old game of putting their nuclear development ‘on hold’ in exchange for relief of sanctions, aid or lots of plain old cash. They can for example cease further testing, close facilities or promise not to sell their technology to America’s enemies. Of course, nobody knows what North Korea will really do behind the scenes, but these promises are good enough to earn US politicians points back home. However, US and South Korean negotiators should take evidence from history as well as North Korea’s own claims at face value, that they will never give up their nukes. It is in their minds the one thing that will force the world powers to take them seriously. North Korea may decide to halt further development, but if they do so, it is because they feel the have already reached the level they want.
Apart from cash and relief of sanctions, Kim is likely to negotiate for assurances that the United States will not attack North Korea, reduce or abolish their military exercises with South Korea and reduce their military presence on the peninsula. All this would earn Kim many points back home, prove that his strategy is successful and assure he can continue to rule North Korea in his own manner for decades to come. Once the Kim regime feels secure, serious economic or political reforms will not be necessary, because Kim can continue to extract cash from his neighbours in exchange for keeping sweet.
Now the question is if North Korea is writing the script all by itself, or has the attitude of the US and the policy of imposing sanctions played a part as well in bringing about talks? It is possible that North Korea could have taken its missile program even further if there would have been a more predictable and lenient president in the White House. And I think ‘predictable’ is a key word here. It is not so difficult for North Korea to predict what South Korea or China will do. These nations have every interest in stability and security. North Korea can push the limits, as China will never drop them and South Korea will never challenge them. But just as the world has very little insight in the workings of North Korea, so North Korea could not predict how Trump would respond. They could have gotten into a war with the US unintentionally. It is possible that this has influenced the decision of Kim to start talking now, and has prevented other military provocations.
It is also possible that sanctions have played a part, particularly since even China has partially implemented them. North Korea is extremely good in finding ways to make money from illicit arms and narcotics trade, hacking financial systems and many other mafia like practices. However, this may not have been enough to fund both the missile program and the necessary economic development that is crucial to win the support of the elite. In other words, sanctions too could have helped to bring about talks.
A few months ago, North Korea posed an urgent security threat to the region, and could be compared to a large tumour that needed to be removed to give the patient a chance of survival. Now we seem to have moved into a stage where the ‘cancer’ can be controlled with careful monitoring and regular treatment, at least for now. But even if North Korea’s threat to the region seems less urgent, the regime continues to harm its own people, and so far, none of the negotiating powers seem to want to put that issue on the table.