In the Korea Talks, Why Kim Jong Un Can't Lose
North and South Korea have just held their first high-level meeting in two years to discuss the North's participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. These talks follow months of tension and escalating rhetoric over the North's continued nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Since his inauguration in May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to engage with the North, and when Kim Jong Un finally opened the door to negotiations last week, the South eagerly agreed. While this inter-Korean dialogue is a welcomed chance to reduce tensions, the North Korean leadership never negotiates unless it believes it has something to gain. In this case, what does Kim hope to achieve?
His immediate goal for the talks, held in a village inside the Demilitarized Zone and led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon for the South and Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea Chairman Ri Son Gwon for the North, was to include North Korea in the Olympic Games, which begin on Feb. 9. According to reports from the negotiations, the countries agreed North Korea will send a delegation of athletes and a cheering squad. This is neither surprising, nor unprecedented. The North sent athletes and cheerleaders to events in the South from 2002-2005, including a delegation with Ri Sol Ju, a former cheerleader and now Kim's wife. Most recently, they participated in the 2014 Asian Games in Seoul.
But beyond the Olympics, the North will use these talks to strengthen their claim that they are a fully fledged nuclear state. In his New Year's address, Kim stated that 2017 marked "the accomplishment of the great, historic cause of perfecting the national nuclear forces." In other words, North Korea believes it has achieved its goal of manufacturing a nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. If true, this represents more than two decades of investment and development by the Kim regime. For Pyongyang, these nuclear capabilities are nonnegotiable. Kim sees the North's nuclear program as his greatest accomplishment and the source of his greatest leverage when entering negotiations.
This is the reason why Kim ignored the South's offer for talks until now. With his nuclear program at or near completion, he comes to the table with the strongest possible hand. Thus, while these talks may temporarily reduce tensions on the peninsula, they do not herald any meaningful change of the status quo. Negotiations on North Korea's terms were not likely to focus on the existence of their nuclear weapons, but on how much support Pyongyang could extract from Seoul. Specifically, the North will have used token gestures of reconciliation to co-opt the Moon administration into helping his regime ease the burden of international sanctions. These gestures might include further high-level talks, a summit between Kim and Moon or a freeze on Pyongyang's nuclear testing. The South's negotiator reportedly did raise the need for peace and denuclearization, but predictably, no progress was made. Other reports said the South offered to hold military talks to ease border tensions. While these steps would improve inter-Korean relations, they would also legitimize the North as a de facto nuclear weapon state.
This will place Moon at odds with the Trump administration. Over the past week, President Trump softened his tone and signaled that he welcomes talks with the North. "Right now, they're talking Olympics; it's a start, a big start ... I'd love to see them take it beyond the Olympics," the president said. But the kind of talks that America wants to pursue under Trump, just as it did under the previous three administrations, are aimed at denuclearizing the North. The Kim regime has no incentive to enter into such talks, and Moon is still willing to engage with them, whether they denuclearize or not. This may cause temporary discord within the U.S.-South Korean alliance, which gives Kim an even greater advantage. By pulling Seoul away from the U.S., North Korea reduces the chances that Trump could unilaterally execute a limited strike against the North's nuclear facilities, if and when Kim decides to test again.
But no amount of talks will override South Korean national security interests. As long as North Korea has nuclear weapons, the Pentagon's military alliance with Seoul will remain. Therefore, what will follow the talks on Jan. 9 are three or four months of tentative exchanges between the Koreas until the U.S. and South Korea resume their annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle military exercises. Trump agreed with Moon to postpone the joint drills until after the Olympics, but they can't be put off indefinitely without major and lasting damage to U.S.-South Korea relations. When they eventually take place, North Korea will balk, accuse South Korea of reneging on its offer for peace, and perhaps test another round of missiles.
This cycle of engagement and provocation has played out over and over again for years. As long as Kim Jong Un dictates the time and conditions for negotiations, the nuclear issue will remain unresolved. The Moon administration is right to welcome North Korean athletes to the Olympics. Any opportunity to show the North Korean people a glimpse of the outside world is worthwhile. But beyond this, talks between the North and South will continue to serve the interests of the Kim regime.
Ben Forney (@ben_forney) is a research associate at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
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