“Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un appears to have learned well from his father Kim Jong-il in how to appear the reasonable negotiator while continuing to pursue an aggressive nuclear arms program. Also using a page out of the Iranian regime’s nuclear deal playbook, Kim Jong-un’s objective is to maneuver the United States, under pressure from the so-called international community, to make immediate concrete economic concessions in return for some limited steps to freeze or reduce the scope of North Korea’s program. To do this, Kim Jong-un, following a year of successive nuclear bomb and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, has reached out to South Korea, China and the Trump administration for direct diplomatic talks. All Kim Jong-un says he wants are guarantees of security for his country and normalization of relations. In return, he is ready to make what China’s state news media Xinhua described as “phased, synchronized” moves toward denuclearizing his country. This is essentially the same formula his father adopted back in 1994 in negotiating the “Agreed Framework,” and then again in 2005 and 2007. We all know how those attempts at diplomacy with North Korea turned out. They ended in failure, as North Korea pocketed the concessions it gained by making promises of denuclearization and each time cheated or walked away from its commitments.
Kim Jong-un has found himself in the grip of unprecedented international economic sanctions, including as implemented by China, North Korea’s most significant trading partner. He took the risk of such sanctions as the price of giving his regime nuclear arms and missile capabilities of such strength that he could face down the U.S. in any exchange of military threats. Kim succeeded at least in the short term last year in holding off any actual military reprisals. There was an exchange of taunts and shows of force but no preemptive military action taken by the Trump administration. President Trump opted instead to escalate the economic pressure, multilaterally and unilaterally, and to enlist China to help make it as painful as possible for the North Korean regime.
The new year brought a complete pivot by Kim Jong-un. He laid on a diplomatic “charm offensive” in pursuing his own version of a divide-and-conquer strategy vis a vis the United States, China and South Korea. There have been no nuclear bomb or intercontinental ballistic missile tests by the North Korean regime since last November. However, there appears to be satellite imagery evidence pointing to the firing up of a new nuclear reactor that could be employed to produce plutonium usable for making nuclear arms.
Last week, Kim took his first journey outside of North Korea to meet with China’s President Xi Jinping. He did so before the summit meeting he is scheduled to have with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and presumably thereafter with President Trump sometime in May. Kim Jong-un used the South Korean government, which appears desperate to deescalate tensions on the South Korean Peninsula, to deliver Kim’s offer of a summit meeting to President Trump. However, Kim made sure that he first mended fences with China, since China is key to whether the current international solidarity behind the current multilateral economic sanctions imposed on the North Korean regime can remain effective.
“We speak highly of this visit,” President Xi told Kim, as reported by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. “Both Comrade Chairman and I have personally experienced and witnessed the development of China-DPRK relationship,” President Xi added, using the acronym DPRK to refer to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This is a strategic choice and the only right choice both sides have made based on history and reality, the international and regional structure and the general situation of China-DPRK ties. This should not and will not change because of any single event at a particular time.”
President Xi praised North Korea’s purported efforts in helping to bring about positive changes on the Korean Peninsula this year. He reiterated that China’s goal is still eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability, and reliance on dialogue to resolve problems. He emphasized the need for maintaining honest communications and exchange of views between the two countries, including at the highest levels, which could be interpreted as an indirect criticism of Kim’s past nuclear arms and missile tests without first consulting China and an implied warning not to behave that way in the future.
For his part, Kim Jong-un said that he chose China as the destination of his first overseas visit to demonstrate the importance of the traditional friendship between the two countries. “In this spring full of happiness and hopes, I believe my first meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping will yield abundant fruits of DPRK-China friendship, and facilitate peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” he declared. Kim was agreeable to more such high-level meetings. Kim also said that it was North Korea’s “consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il. The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”
Kim was looking for assurances from the Chinese leader that China would oppose any military means of resolving the nuclear crisis, if future talks with the United States fail to materialize or fail to produce positive results. He asked China to “jointly safeguard the trend of consultation and dialogue as well as peace and stability on the peninsula,” according to Xinhua. President Xi reaffirmed China’s opposition to any military strikes on the Korean Peninsula. But it is not clear whether he committed China to serving as North Korea’s protector in the event of a military strike by the United States.
World leaders and the United Nations hailed the Kim-Xi summit meeting. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ office issued a statement declaring that the Secretary General “views the latest positive developments as the start of a longer process of sincere dialogue, leading to sustainable peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.” Even the White House expressed cautious optimism, following China’s briefing the Trump administration on the visit by Kim Jong-un to Beijing. Included was a personal message from President Xi to President Trump. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Wednesday, “we feel like things are moving in the right direction.”
We have seen this movie before, except for the prospect of a direct summit meeting between President Trump and the North Korean dictator, which appears to still be in the works. Kim Jong-un is obviously trying to box President Trump into agreeing to the same phased reciprocal approach that North Korea has exploited to its advantage before. This time, however, the gambit may not work if President Trump continues to hew to a hard line. So far, the signs are encouraging. The president will be advised by the new National Security Adviser John Bolton and the Secretary of State-designee Mike Pompeo, both of whom are highly skeptical of North Korea’s intentions. Moreover, the Trump administration is already signaling that it will not back off its maximum economic pressure strategy anytime soon.
Late last week, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Mission to the UN, it “secured Security Council support for the largest-ever UN sanctions designation package on North Korea. The UN Security Council’s 1718 North Korea Sanctions Committee unanimously approved 49 new UN designations – 21 shipping companies, one individual, and 27 ships – all aimed at countering North Korea’s illegal maritime smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal, and preventing certain entities and ships from aiding them in these efforts.” The statement thanked the international community for continuing to stand together “to keep up maximum pressure on the North Korean regime.” What makes this development especially significant is that it came after the meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un. This means that China is likely to adopt a wait-and-see attitude before it decides whether to break with the United States on continuing to exert maximum economic pressure on North Korea.
President Trump must continue using the stick of maximum economic pressure on North Korea and take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that China is and remains fully on board. He also needs to keep South Korea from yielding to the temptation of making premature concessions to buy a phony peace on the Korean Peninsula, even if it means holding back on finalizing the newly negotiated trade agreement with South Korea to keep South Korea in line. Only after North Korea significantly rolls back its nuclear arms and intercontinental ballistic missile programs in an irreversible and verifiable fashion should any concessions on easing the sanctions be considered. North Korea’s own history of cheating and broken commitments, together with the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, demonstrate the failure of strategic patience and appeasement. North Korea will only use relief from sanctions and protracted talks as an opportunity to fill in any remaining gaps in its nuclear arms and missile programs.