Kim’s calculationsA delegation led by Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office, returned with a surprising result from a two-day trip to Pyongyang. Before he left, Chung said his mission was to arrange talks between Pyongyang and Washington, but many believed the trip would be fundamentally ceremonial. U.S. and North Korean delegates kept their distance during the opening and closing ceremonies of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in Gangwon, suggesting that Pyongyang and Washington had no intention of getting any closer regardless of Seoul’s wishes and attempts to mediate a rapprochement.
The United States repeatedly said that it could not go into dialogue unless it was on the issue of denuclearization. North Korea maintained it won’t beg for dialogue and had no intention of sitting across a table from U.S. officials if conditions were attached. Even as South Korean envoys were in Pyongyang, the Rodong Sinmun kept up its harsh rhetoric against the United States. The state mouthpiece carried a photo of its leader Kim Jong-un hosting a dinner for South Korean guests, adding that the two Koreas discussed ways to improve ties through dialogue, cooperation and exchanges.
There was some hope as the state media said Kim and the envoys had “candid” discussions. Experts believed the envoys would have done their best if they could get a promise of a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. But they believed the freeze would only take place if South Korea and the United States scale down the joint military exercises. They predicted that Washington could consider approaching Pyongyang if a tit-for-tat deal was made on downsized joint exercises for the North’s moratorium on nuclear tests.
What Chung brought home was beyond imagination. Arrangements for an inter-Korean summit were expected. But North Korea’s willingness to talk to Washington and suspend military provocations while dialogue is underway were not. Kim’s words were entirely out of tune with his past belligerency. He told the South Korean delegates that going nuclear-free had been the wishes of his grandfather and father. He also gave a nod to the need for South Korea and the United States to hold regular military drills that had been postponed until after the Olympics and Paralympics.
So what accounts for such a dramatic about-turn in Pyongyang? Economic woes from ever-deepening sanctions could have been a factor. The strain on the economy from sanctions from the United States and South Korea on top of UN-led ones has devastated its pitiful economy.
If sanctions continue on, the North Korean economy may contract more than 5 percent this year. Sanction compliance from its primary trading partner China has made a direct hit on the economy. Chinese companies have pulled out of North Korea, and China has kicked North Korean businesses from its soil.
Shrinking trade has dried up the regime’s coffers. The elite can no longer afford imports that must be paid for in hard currency due to the shriveled trade as well as remittances from overseas workers as they were expelled from host countries. The dictatorship cannot be sustained if loyalty cannot be financially bought from party, military and government officials. Economic depression and shortage of governing funds could shake the regime. Kim therefore has become desperate to free the country from sanctions.
Kim also could be aiming to undermine the South Korea-U.S. alliance or even achieve a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. Kim said North Korea won’t need nuclear weapons if the U.S. military threat is removed and the regime’s viability is assured. That could mean a cessation in joint drills, diplomatic normalization between Pyongyang and Washington and a pullout of American troops. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s prescription of a so-called grand bargain to achieve North Korean denuclearization through a withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from South Korea may become a reality. North Korea may be envisioning such changes to take the leadership in uniting the divided land.
Kim also could be confident about North Korean capabilities to produce nuclear weapons and missiles at any time even after dismantling them. Even when it accepts international inspectors and proceeds with dismantlement, what is in the heads of its scientists and engineers will not go away. Pyongyang can restore a weapons program if it wants to. It can just walk out of the talks as it did in the past.
The six-point agreements made in Pyongyang could open a new chapter to lift the war clouds over the peninsula. Seoul must use sophisticated diplomatic and negotiating skills on not only Pyongyang, but also Washington and other allies in order not to fall back into the past vicious cycle.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 8, Page 29
*The author is the head of security strategy at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.