Pyongyang’s Readiness to Talk: Strength or Weakness?

The last few days’ developments in and around the Korean Peninsula are quite sensational. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, met with a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang and declared that he was ready for denuclearization. He said that North Korea was willing to start direct talks with the United States and promised that the North intended to refrain from holding nuclear and missile tests. It was also announced that Kim and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in would hold an inter-Korean summit in late April. But the main news was certainly Kim’s proposal to President Donald Trump to have a bilateral summit and the latter’s consent to meet with Kim no later than the end of May.

The latest news coming from Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington is giving cause for certain optimism, but it is still far too early to say that the Korean nuclear crisis, perhaps the most dangerous international confrontation since the Cold War, has been overcome. Since the early 1990s, when the first spiral of the Korean nuclear crisis occurred, there were several similar hope-inspiring episodes, all of which inevitably ended sadly. North Korea expressed readiness to denuclearize, started talks and even signed agreements. But some time later, the negotiating process hit a deadlock, the agreements fell apart, and the situation became even worse. True enough, the developments didn’t go as far as a US-North Korean summit, although Bill Clinton was almost ready to go to Pyongyang in 2000, but his term of office ended before he could do so.

North Korea’s readiness to renounce nuclear weapons is hardly news either. Pyongyang always states that it will accept the deal under certain conditions, primarily if the US “discontinues its hostile policy.” This time, too, Kim Jong-un made denuclearization conditional on getting unspecified “security guarantees” for his country. He did not specify what these guaranties could be. Pyongyang may well demand the end of US military presence on the southern Korean Peninsula, the scrapping of the US-South Korean alliance, or even the withdrawal of US military bases from Japan. It is hard to imagine that Washington, let alone Seoul and Tokyo, would agree to these demands. It cannot be ruled out that Pyongyang will urge Washington to give up certain weapon systems or even nuclear weapons as such, thus putting on the agenda the issue of mutual, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Of all the statements Pyongyang has made to date, the most specific one is that it would refrain from missile launches and nuclear tests for the duration of the negotiating process. Actually, North Korea has observed this self-imposed moratorium for over three months, for its last missile launch took place in late November 2017. Pyongyang clearly hopes for an easier ride, mostly on sanctions, in exchange for freezing its missile and nuke test program. For how long will Pyongyang demonstrate an inclination for peace without reciprocal US concessions? Washington seems ready for talks with the North but simultaneously declares a determination to maintain sanctions and its “maximum pressure” policy. [1] The Americans have no intention of rewarding Pyongyang solely for suspending the tests and being prepared for talks. Indicatively, the State Department said it was introducing new sanctions against North Korea for having masterminded the chemical assassination of Kim Jong-nam [2] in the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017 on the same day as the South Korean envoys broke the news about Pyongyang’s peace initiatives.

The course and nature of the potential US-North Korean talks will largely depend on whether Washington views Kim Jong-un as a strong or vulnerable player. If the Americans feel weakness, they will try to coerce North Korea into making maximum concessions or even capitulating. Pyongyang is well aware of this possibility. The key question in this connection is whether Pyongyang’s new readiness for talks is a sign of strength or weakness? There is no sound answer.

On the one hand, Kim Jong-un is radiating certainty and projecting a top-dog image. Thus far, he is clearly in possession of the strategic and diplomatic initiative. On the other, the super-tough sanctions, in effect since last year, which are tantamount to an economic blockade, cannot but affect even a country like North Korea that has been long used to international isolation. How long and how successfully North Korea’s economy, including its military-industrial complex, can hold out under these conditions depends on a number of factors, including its gold and currency reserves and its stocks of strategic raw materials. No one outside North Korea has any reliable information in this regard. Approximately the same can be said for the status of its missile and nuclear program. There is no doubt that the North has achieved impressive successes in developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But to what extent are Pyongyang’s claims that it has weapons capable of reaching the territory of its main enemy, the United States, true to fact? No one can give a confident answer to this question, except, possibly, Kim Jong-un himself and his inner circle, who know the real state of affairs in the economy and the military-industrial sector. It is quite likely that it is far removed from the North Korean propaganda picture.

One can hardly imagine that North Korea will give up its entire nuclear arsenal in exchange for any amount of guarantees. At any rate, this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. A much more realistic scenario is that Pyongyang will agree to freeze and dismantle certain components of its missile and nuclear program. A likely compromise is that Pyongyang renounces nuclear tests, production of weapon-grade plutonium and uranium, and development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting America in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and reduction in the scale of Washington’s military preparations on the peninsula. This agreement could be the first major step towards de-escalation of the Korean nuclear crisis and prospectively its settlement.

But there is one more important issue left. Even if Trump makes a grand bargain with Kim, what are the chances that he will be allowed to implement it? The resistance is certain to be on a grand scale, too, both on the part of the US military-political establishment bent on demonizing North Korea and influential American elites, who don’t care about North Korea but hate – overtly or covertly – Donald Trump’s guts and are ready to torpedo any Trump initiatives.         



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