Treating Kim like a kingLouis XIV famously said, “L’etat c’est moi,” in the 17th century. But he might as well have been describing North Korea in the 21st century. With North Korea, we have to keep in mind the irrefutable fact that the country, rather than a traditional socialist state, is closer to an absolute monarchy in which the state is synonymous with its leader Kim Jong-un. It’s a triumvirate in which the state, regime, and leader are all considered to be one and the same, especially in national security matters.
Dealing with North Korea means dealing with the personal pride and fears of an isolated, yet all-controlling king. Granted, the realpolitik of international relations does play an important factor even for North Korea, but it is interpreted and reacted through the heuristic lens of its reigning monarch. Therefore, no one except Kim can make any decision of national importance. If they did, it would be tantamount to treason. Any agreement, or even negotiations, without Kim’s explicit and prior approval and direction is always subject to a reversal or non-compliance, regardless of the merit of the dialogue.
This recognition is significant because it implies that the North Korean leadership’s reference point for its decisions would probably be based on how it may affect the persona of the leader, more so than strategic thinking about the future of the country as a whole. This actually gives the United States an insight into the type of leverage that would be effective in any eventual negotiations with the North Korean leadership. After all, in a monarchy, finding out what is most important to the king that is always the key to unlocking the gates of the kingdom.
This peculiarity can make negotiations easier because North Korea has no opposition, national assembly, press, or civil society. All North Korea needs to act is the decision by the Supreme Leader.
This is why it is crucial for U.S. President Donald Trump to personally engage with Kim — whether through a summit or some other means of direct communication — to have the latter directly and publicly express his commitment to whatever negotiating framework that the two leaders can agree on. Only then can his underlings work out the details to make it happen on the ground level.
In other words, the typical bottom-up approach that typifies the diplomatic negotiations process — in which the working-level diplomats hammer out the difficult details of a deal for an extended period of time and vet them with their respective superiors in secrecy, only to have their top leadership publicly announce it later with official blessing and aplomb — isn’t likely to work with North Korea. Any effective dialogue with the country will have to directly involve the top leadership from the beginning.
The Six-Party Talks failed precisely because its approach is reverse to what could work with North Korea: It sought to hammer out the details and then work its way up to a summit where the grand bargain would be finalized. The right order should have been to finalize the grand bargain with Kim himself on general terms and then work out the details. Notwithstanding the great work and perseverance by American working-level diplomats and track 1.5 participants, current and future engagements with North Korea will be ineffective unless this order is followed.
Kim Jong-un should be present in the beginning of the process to make any bargain stick with North Korea. And the only incentive that speaks to Kim’s political needs and absolute leadership status domestically would be a direct engagement with the leader of the Free World and primary enemy for the last 70 years. Direct engagement at the top level need not be a personal meeting between the two leaders. It would just have to be a meeting in which their two personally trusted envoys — who can be outside the normal channels of their respective bureaucracies — get together in person to exchange their leaders’ intent and willingness to explore negotiations. In other words, the engagement should be a personally driven process, not a bureaucratic one.
In fact, saving Kim Jong-un’s face through a direct engagement could induce him to strike an easier bargain because the symbolism of the relationship props up the credibility of Kim Jong-un to his domestic audience. He would have brought home even bigger political bacon than they had before: security and prosperity at the same time, guaranteed by the only superpower in the world.
This is how Kim would sell this to his people: The Kim dynasty looked America straight into the eye with great courage and undeniable righteousness, and America blinked first. Furthermore, presenting Kim Jong-un an opportunity to proclaim a meaningful historical place in the ethnography of the Korean people might be too tempting to refuse.
In the end, let Kim have his personal victory if it means a nuclear-free Korea and no more North Korean people suffering needlessly. The sooner, the better. That would be a true foreign policy and moral victory for America. The achievement is worthy of the oft-touted negotiating prowess of President Trump.
This is the third of the four-part series of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s views on North Korea.
*The author is a Buddhist monk engaged in humanitarian and human rights work in North Korea. He is also the founder and chairman of the Peace Foundation, a national security policy think tank located in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Venerable Pomnyun Sunim