BY: ANDY LAUB
It took him seven years but Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea, the world’s most reclusive state, has begun to slowly introduce himself to the rest of the world as he embarks on a charm offensive. It all started with the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, where North Korea sent a high level delegation led by Mr. Kim’s Sister Kim Yo-Jong; she met with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and personally delivered an invitation from her brother to President Moon for the two to meet. The flurry of diplomatic activity on the peninsula would continue when Kim Jong-Un met with South Korean leaders ahead of this week’s planned summit between Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In. The high stakes summit, which will include discussions of a peace deal that would formally end the Korean War, something very important to North Korea, since the war only ended in 1953 with an armistice and both countries are technically still at war today. Such a peace deal could potentially lead to a normalization of relations between the two Koreas and potentially between North Korea and the United States. Mr. Kim has reiterated that he is willing to discuss complete denuclearization and insofar as willing to end its nuclear program if his regime is no longer threatened by the United States. The inter-Korean summit is very important as it will be the first test to see if any kind of further diplomacy is plausible. This week’s summit is a pretext for the highly anticipated summit between Kim Jong-Un and U.S President Donald Trump being set-up for late May or early June.
Kim Jong-Un also did something earlier this month that he has never done before since taking the reigns of North Korea and that was leaving the country by train to visit China. On an official visit for his meeting with his closest ally in President Xi Jinping of China, the two dined over lobster and champagne – a meal average people in either of their country’s would seldom see. Kim got exactly what he wanted out this meeting: legitimacy and respect as an equal, which is why he has chosen now to reach out to the rest of the world, he wants to show it is on his terms. As further exemplified by this past weekend’s announcement that North Korea will suspend all nuclear and ballistic missile tests and close its main nuclear facilities. While this is a positive step to create a more suitable environment for diplomacy, it is also clear that Mr. Kim is now comfortable with the status of his nuclear program. After a year of unprecedented testing, he now holds more cards as he begins negotiations with South Korea and the United States. His behavior indicates that he wants to be taken seriously as a major world leader with nuclear weapons capability and be treated as an equal by major powers like the United States. CIA Director and Secretary of State Nominee Mike Pompeo also secretly visited North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-Un over Easter weekend, only the second time a high ranking U.S official has visited the DPRK, the last being Madeline Albright with Kim Jong-Il, the current leader’s father.
What does all of this mean for the upcoming summits and a potential deal on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program? First and foremost, it raises the stakes now, given that diplomacy is happening at the highest levels between the two leaders, if it does not go well there really is no suitable recourse and could further poison the waters. President Trump has publicly threatened to walk out if his terms aren’t met, giving the North Koreans the upper-hand since they can take credit for making the diplomatic overture and the United States killing it. Perhaps this is the calculation they made when making this overture, given their assessment of Mr. Trump’s behavior and language used about the regime and Mr. Kim in particular. Experts are right to be skeptical, given previous agreements with the United States have been violated by the North Koreans such as the Agreed Framework negotiated in 1994 under the Clinton Administration as well as the Six Party talks under the Bush Administration, where they used the negotiations as a platform to stall and buy time to advance their nuclear weapons program. However, in this situation, they don’t need time- they now have a robust program. When Kim Jong-Un walks into that room to meet Donald Trump, he will most certainly be looking to see what concessions he can get from the United States to insure his regime’s survival.
More importantly, the stakes are equally high for the United States with China currently watching from the sidelines. Following the imposition of tariffs by the United States, relations between China and the U.S. have appeared more strained. But China has always been the North’s closest ally, which could potentially change following the U.S. talks with North Korea. If the U.S. is able to strike a deal with the DPRK, then it might very well be able to secure a North Korea that leans towards the U.S. For Xi and China, this might prove to be a problem unless their most favorable version of the deal is struck, i.e., a removal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. The balance of power in Northeast Asia remains fragile, with all regional actors looking for some semblance of peace while the United States remains steadfast in its demands. Tensions remain high as people continue to doubt the sudden about-turn in the overtures of the North Korean leader. Some say they have seen this before, others allege North Korea is more dangerous than ever before. In any scenario, diplomacy remains the only viable option to pursue to bring a reasonable end to a conflict that has spanned decades.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and Multilateral Affairs Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.