So, does he really mean it? Or is North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un blowing smoke from his rockets in the eyes of the world?
Almost everyone’s guessing, the only people who know are Kim and a very small group of senior officials around him. And even if he really does mean to usher in a new era of peaceful co-existence with his neighbours and the Americans, it still doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make the compromises necessary to get there.
My guess? He means it, and there’s a chance of success. However, that has to be caveated with the problem that what he means by compromise may not be shared by others.
In 2013 the North Koreans set out on the ‘Byungjin’ (parallel development) policy under which it intended to make rapid progress on both the economic and nuclear weapons fronts. On the former, it remains a basket case, on the latter they have made so much progress they have almost brought the Americans to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, although economically the North has not advanced, Kim is thought to have maneuvered the higher echelons of his dictatorship into a position whereby economic reforms are possible. This was followed by hints at detente in his New Year’s address, followed by participation in the South Korean Winter Olympics.
But here’s the but… but for economic progress to happen he needs investment, and for that to happen he needs to denuclearize. This brings us to today’s meeting. Progress between the two Koreas should lead to a meeting with the Americans, which is what this is all about. There’s a strong case to be made that we have only got this far due to the punitive U.S. sanctions under President Trump, his ‘mad man’ tweeting, and actual movement of military assets into agressive positions. Nothing Presidents Clinton, Bush or Obama did came this close to what might be a breakthough.
So, what does progress look like? Kim has already halted nuclear and missile testing. We need to see the opening vague sketches of what a final deal may look like. So, words are important.
If the North can strongly suggest that the testing freeze could be permanent then that will be progress. If it goes even further and hints at disarming as a nuclear power, that might be enough to seal the meeting with President Trump. In return, the South can use language suggesting a genuine peace treaty (the Korean War has not officially ended) and could offer a mutual ‘no first strike’ agreement. Oh, and paying North Korea several hundred million dollars in hard cash would help as well, as it was before a Korean summit in 2000.
If the ‘mood music’ is right, and that is mostly what we can hope for this week – then it could be on to the real deal – the North Korea/USA summit later this year. At this point, things get even more difficult.
An American commitment to potentially lift economic sanctions in stages would be a start. A binding re-iteration of no first strike’ agreement is relatively easy, but what if then the Americans insist that disarmament means allowing in UN weapons inspectors and a complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme within 2 years – but the North envisages a 20-year time frame? A temporary halt in the annual joint U.S./S Korea military exercises could be looked at, but what if the North insists all American military bases in South Korea must be closed within 5 years etc etc? The North would love to be in a position to dominate the peninsula militarily.
But that is for the summer. First, in the spring, we need to see the flowering of détente between Pyongyang and Seoul.