WASHINGTON: Since US President Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, nuclear negotiations have struggled over what comes first: The end-of-war declaration or denuclearisation.
Pyongyang has claimed that it has shown good faith by halting nuclear and missile tests, blowing up the entrance to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, starting to dismantle a missile testing facility, and returning some of the US prisoner-of-war remains, even as reports suggest that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Calling for peace talks is not a new tactic. The North Korean regime has used it in the past to delay and deflect attention from the nuclear issue.
Yet while Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, probably recognised that this was a maximalist position and that the United States would not accept peace talks in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Kim Jong Un probably has a plausible reason to believe that an end of war declaration is within his grasp with President Trump.
KIM’S TRUE MOTIVATIONS
Kim’s singular focus and push for an end-of war declaration is probably driven by a number of factors.
First, he sees a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with President Trump, who has openly derided the value of the US alliance with South Korea.
In Trump, Kim has a sympathetic partner in the White House who held a summit with him against the counsel of his advisers, and agreed to a statement at Singapore, which by all measures was weak and failed to advance the US policy of final, fully verified denuclearisation.
Trump’s tweets and letters calling Kim Jong Un “honourable,” hinting at his desire to meet again to “get it done” together — man-to-man, leader-to-leader — and other complimentary statements almost certainly reinforce Kim’s belief that his personal appeals and flattery are working.
The fact that President Trump had already declared a win on the North Korea issue as a result of the summit — it has also made it into the president’s talking points at his rallies — probably demonstrated to Kim that the president is eager, and indeed, invested, in a “win” with North Korea.
A FRIEND IN SEOUL
Second, unlike the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, which took a hard line against the Kim regime, Kim Jong Un now has a partner in Seoul with the progressive Moon administration.
Since Kim offered an olive branch in his New Year’s speech, President Moon has brokered, nurtured, and prodded US-North Korea talks, in large part to empower his push for greater inter-Korean engagement.
Kim and Moon have expressed their mutual desire for pan-Korean autonomy in Korean Peninsula affairs and relatively downplaying the nuclear issue.
SHAPING THE GLOBAL DEBATE ON THE KOREAN PENINSULA
Third, Kim seeks to maintain the initiative on shaping the global debate about how to approach the North Korea problem. That is, he is looking to shift the discussion to non-nuclear issues to deflect attention away from its nuclear weapons and dampen the international community’s appetite for implementing sanctions.
After declaring that he has completed the nuclear weapons programme, Kim has pivoted toward engagement and focusing on the economy — key themes in the recent parade held weeks ago to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding.
The past nine months of summitry have revived and sustained calls for further engagement, even as Pyongyang continues to reject timelines and verification measures for denuclearisation and covertly make additional progress on its strategic programmes.
Finally, Kim is probably seeking to reduce his dependence on China by trying to start the process for peace negotiations with the United States.
Kim might be calculating that sustained bilateral talks with Washington would increase his leverage against Beijing and stimulate Chinese leaders to be more pliable to Pyongyang’s preferences — such as reducing sanctions implementation — by taking advantage of Chinese concerns about being sidelined in Korean Peninsula issues.
While a declaration might buy us some time of relative quiet, it would set the stage for bigger problems down the road.
READ: US ready to negotiate with North Korea 'immediately': Pompeo
DON’T GET DISTRACTED BY SHINY OBJECTS
As the White House prepares for another summit in which the end-of-war declaration almost certainly will be discussed, the Trump administration must be thoughtful about Kim’s motivations.
The declaration — despite what Kim might say in the next meeting — is not a panacea and it is probably not the pivot on which the future of US-North Korea ties, regional and global stability, and North Korean denuclearisation rests.
While a declaration might buy us some time of relative quiet, it would set the stage for bigger problems down the road. There are serious risks of a premature peace declaration.
It would reward Pyongyang for taking cosmetic, reversible actions, further legitimise North Korea’s claimed status as a nuclear weapons power, erode the US-South Korea alliance and US credibility in the region, and weaken global nonproliferation norms.
It would also serve as a potential tool for Pyongyang to wield down the line when military exercises resume or Washington announces additional sanctions.
JUSTIFICATIONS, MISCALCULATION RISKS
Pyongyang is also likely to use Washington’s “hostile” actions as justification if the North Korean regime decide to conduct more nuclear and ballistic missile tests to put the onus on the United States for not living up to the peace declaration.
Perhaps most importantly, Kim’s confidence about his ability to manage the consequences of his bad behavior is likely to grow, potentially making him even more willing to take risks in the future and increasing the potential for miscalculation that quickly spirals into a military conflict.
Ultimately, the case for US agreement to a peace declaration depends on the key assumption that Kim’s idea of peace is linked to his relinquishing of nuclear weapons.
Instead, the history of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the ideological infrastructure that the Kim dynasty has built over the decades, and the regime’s own public statements strongly suggest that peace — from North Korea’s perspective — is achievable because it has nuclear weapons.
Any planning for an end-of-war declaration must confront this important distinction and prepare for the consequences as the North Korea nuclear issue continues to evolve.
Jung H Pak is the SK-Korea Foundation chair in Korean studies and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. A version of this commentary first appeared in the Brookings Institution’s blog Order from Chaos.