By: Jang Sung Min

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s surprise April 20 statement that he was shutting down his nuclear testing site and ending all further nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests has caused as much confusion as hope in Seoul and Washington.  

In a new policy decision announced by the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim declared that his nuclear arsenal has reached a level of sufficiency that no longer required further testing. He said it is time to focus on economic development, which forms the second plank of his “byungjin” policy of simultaneously advancing on economic and military front.

But the statement left many questions unanswered. For instance, what does Kim mean by ending further tests? Is this to be a simple moratorium in the current phase of missile and nuclear development? Is he offering to accept outside inspection and verification on existing nuclear arsenal? Is he prepared to open up the entire nuclear facilities and missile locations for international inspection? What does he want in exchange for readiness to suspend the existing nuclear program?

Also the statement missed one word the rest of the world was hoping to hear from Pyongyang: denuclearization. Failure to commit to a complete abrogation of the nuclear option can potentially overturn the whole negotiation process now underway, including preparation for the summit talks with President Donald Trump. In near term, it also darkens the prospects of the scheduled summit talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in set for April 27 at the armistice village of Panmunjom.

As we ponder these implications, one should not ignore the high price the Kim regime has paid so far to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It’s not simply a matter of investment. It’s a matter of determination for survival, whether it be survival of his nation or his own regime. In North Korea where the Kim family has held sway for three generations now, the nation and regime are bound in one destiny.

In the years he has been in power, Kim has determinedly focused all national resources to attaining a self-sufficient nuclear arsenal and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Sparing no expenditure for this purpose, he has wrecked the North Korean economy in the process. Four of six underground nuclear tests since 2006 and a whopping 86 missile launches since 2011 were all conducted under his leadership. The last ICBM launched in September had specialists worrying it could be on the brink of carrying a nuclear tip. No wonder North Korean officials have insist time and again that it is simply inconceivable to give up the bomb, however high the cost.  

But even this iron-clad commitment may be weakening in the face of “fire and fury” statement from President Trump. His UN speech last year that North Korea could expect to be “completely destroyed” in the event of war could not have escaped Kim’s attention. It’s an existential threat to his nation, not just to his regime.

Washington’s policy of exerting maximum pressure through the global sanctions regime has crippled the economy. China’s participation in the ongoing sanctions has reduced the North’s export earnings by as much as 90 poercent. All this is coming to a nation still suffering from lingering effects of the Great Famine, which killed an enormous number of people between 1995 to 2000. Is Kim confident of overcoming another catastrophe of this scale?

But the irony is that Trump’s threat of annihilating North Korea also scares South Korea, forcing President Moon to declare he would oppose all forms of attacks. South Koreans fear that the North’s retaliatory strikes can also decimate their hard-won democracy and economy. With casualty estimates running into the millions if war starts on the Korean peninsula, the South is practically held hostage in this conflict.

This sad scenario impels President Moon to avoid war at all cost, a situation that ironically could protect the North from US military strikes. This explains Moon’s recent obsession with Kim’s peace offensive ahead of the summit talks. Kim’s peace campaign is clearly intended to make it difficult for Trump to move ahead with his massive military strikes on the North.

This peace agreement holds another hidden card – Pyongyang’s argument that it removes the need for maintaining US forces in the South. Its logic: why the need to keep US forces when there’s no more military conflict on the peninsula? An arrangement of permanent peace could bring additional benefits to the North by allowing resumption of economic aid from the South. This accords with Kim’s new policy of concentrating on economic development. 

Kim appears clearly out to minimize talks on denuclearization and maximize his proposal for peace treaty, which is really a demilitarization of the peninsula. That can also obstruct Trump’s using military option to achieve progress on the denuclearization front.

Here’s the clear reason for Seoul and Washington to tread warily on the coming summit talks. For the time being, US and South Korean officials vow that the issue of US forces in the South will not be up for talks at any level. Even so, President Moon should be careful not to stray from the main agenda of denuclearization, even as Kim insists that’s the agenda to be taken up between himself and Trump and it’s no business of South Korea’s.

Jang Sung Min was political secretary to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and a former foreign affairs committee member of South Korean National Assembly. He is President of World and North Asia Peace Forum, an independent research organization in Seoul and is a frequent commentator on North Korean affairs.