By: Shim Jae Hoon

Kim Jong-un’s verbal statement expressing willingness to open denuclearization talks with the United States and Donald Trump’s surprising acceptance of the invitation to meet as soon as May suddenly eased fears of nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

But this dramatic sequence of events, full of mystery and hope, carries elements of instability with the potential of derailing the negotiating process aimed at denuclearization of the peninsula. North Korea’s record of duplicity inspires little trust in this latest proposal, and Kim’s nuclear and missile capability has moved too far along to think that he might negotiate it away for a price.

Given endless tensions emanating from the unpredictable regime for two decades, it’s inconceivable that Washington or Seoul would accept a partial settlement leaving North Korea’s nuclear arsenal frozen, if not defanged.

Kim’s statement follows the peaceful mood of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and the US ignoring Kim’s bid for dialogue. So, Kim moved from supporting the China-endorsed “double-freeze” formula – a proposition under which he would suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US halting annual military exercises – to the US demand for outright denuclearization. His goal is in question, whether this is another trap for buying time or whether the nation is buckling under US-led global economic sanctions.

Japanese officials suggest that increasingly effective sanctions, including marine interdiction operations against ship-to-ship oil transshipments involving Chinese vessels, have forced Kim to change his strategy.  

Tightening sanctions on his puny economy is not the only factor. The Trump administration’s tough stance in which military options figure prominently, with the United States considering “preemptive” or “surgical strikes” at the North’s major targets, has sobered Kim. The United States has deployed numerous strategic assets such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-capable Stealth fighters capable of flying deep into the North’s territory.

Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on the regime may have had the desired effect of forcing Kim rethink his options. Many South Korean experts suggest that the North is highly sensitive to the kind of saber-rattling it uses for propaganda. The North fears an attack so much so that Kim has bolstered his personal security teams against a “decapitation” attempt. For a regime that devotes time to reading Washington tea leaves, the exodus of US diplomats opposing the use of force likely did not escape Kim’s attention.

Still, Kim’s proposal on denuclearization is long on propaganda and short on substance. Ambassador Chung Eui-yong, President Moon Jae In’s chief national security advisor who led a five-member delegation to Pyongyang, sat for four hours with Kim, taking notes but not engaging in probing conversation or raising hard questions on the 5-point proposal.

Over dinner, Kim said he was willing to talk denuclearization with the United States, would suspend nuclear and missile tests while talks were underway, and would not mind – “understand” is the term he used – the United States and South Korea proceeding with scheduled military exercises as talks continued. Summing up the discussion, he repeated the standard propaganda line that “there is no reason for the North to maintain its nuclear arsenal if military threats against it were removed, and security of his regime guaranteed.” As US Vice President Mike Pence is said to have reacted, Washington is being shown the same old movie again.

In Seoul, independent analysts are dismayed that neither Chung nor others at the dinner probed Kim for details, such as whether he is ready to accept inspections of nuclear facilities.

“The key issue is not declaration of intent,” and Chung left Kim off the hook, according to Korea University Professor Kim Sung Han, who has spent decades studying North Korea. The devil is in the details, and the North has a history of reneging on promises by rejecting inspection and verification. The US insists on a complete formula called CVID – Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization. From the 1992 inter-Korean Basic Treaty to the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Six Party Agreement, North Korea has broken every agreement on its denuclearization accords.

Surprisingly, neither Chung nor Suh Hoon, Seoul’s national intelligence chief, also at the dinner, asked for a formal, documented statement affirming Kim’s talking points. They jotted down his statements by hand in a notebook, the only record on which to base Kim’s remarks, leaving room for later repudiation. Nor, for that matter, was it clear if Trump’s agreement to meet rests on a formal invitation from Kim or whether it was relayed by Chung by word of mouth.

South Korea’s security was relegated to footnote status as Kim and the envoys spent most of the time talking about US–North Korean relations. Almost as sop to Seoul, Kim said he would meet with Moon in April at the Panmunjom armistice village, what would be his first face-to-face talk with a South Korean leader. Almost tongue in cheek, Kim said the North would refrain from attacking the South with “nuclear or conventional weapons,” a moot point given the US–South Korean alliance.

No apology was made for the North Korean torpedo attack in 2000 that sank the South Korean Navy corvette with 46 men or a subsequent artillery barrage against Paengnyong Island killing civilian farmers.

For the moment, Kim appears set on resuming contacts with Seoul to fight the tightening economic sanctions expected to cost his regime up to 90 percent of its export earnings from coal, fish and textiles. China’s halfhearted participation makes resumption of ties with Seoul more pressing. With each missile launch costing tens of millions of dollars, the North is desperate for cash to buy parts and food.

According to a Brookings Institution analysis, Kim is in dire straits after directing no fewer than 84 missile launches and four underground nuclear tests since 2012, with the last nuclear test thought to be a thermonuclear or hydrogen type of bomb.

Ironically, South Korea’s two decades of détente policy and aid programs worth US$10 billion, including a US$500 million bribe Kim Dae Jung paid Kim Jong-il for 2000 summit talks, have inadvertently helped fund the North’s nuclear program, according to some estimates.

“South Korea virtually stopped the North’s collapse with its economic aid,” is the assessment by Hwang Jang Yop, a top North Korean party figure who escaped to Seoul in 1997.

Much about this rushed and haphazard meeting remains a mystery. The North has not informed its 25 million people about the proposed summit, and many South Koreans worry about Trump pouncing on an ill-advised deal. Probably in response to such concerns, Suh Hoon said during a newspaper interview that Seoul will be in the driver’s seat on the summit process, but that questions like withdrawal of US troops from South Korea or proposed changes in the current alliance structure will not be the subject of concessions.

Kim may not accept such limits. For two decades, the North has not wavered from the idea that a nuclear arsenal constitutes its last pillar of survival with a nuclear state enshrined in its state constitution since 2012. Kim has taken to reminding top officials of the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after giving up their nuclear programs.

For North Korea, though, a nuclear arsenal is also “the chief instrument for attaining reunification of the peninsula under its terms,” says Yoon Dok Min, veteran head of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. In short, Kim cannot give up the nuclear program without risking his family’s role in a reunified Korea – a point Trump should consider in preparing to deal with Kim.

Shim Jae Hoon, formerly the Korea correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a journalist based in Seoul. He wrote this for YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.