The coming historic meeting between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un provides an extraordinary opportunity to reduce tensions in Asia, or it could push us forward towards a possible confrontation.
The opportunity emerged following soft diplomatic overtures between North and South Korea during the Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Shortly before the overtures, Kim Jong-un made concrete threats specifically directed at the United States to accelerate the industrialization of his missile production and evoking his access to his alleged “nuclear button.” Yet, he blinked in his showdown with the Trump administration by engaging in talks with Seoul and sending a joint Korean delegation to the Games.
This display of diplomatic savvy by the third-generation dictator of North Korea may seem to belie his reputation as a ruthless and murderous autocrat. But these two aspects of his psychological makeup do not contradict one another.
Indeed, what drives Kim’s affirmation of authority at home and his pursuit of an operational nuclear weapon in direct defiance of international condemnation is the same impetus that pushes him to seek international engagement, recognition, and an end to sanctions from a position of strength.
From his perspective, these are the best steps available to shore up his own power and ensure his personal—and the regime’s—survival. The diplomatic overture was quite a rational move from a North Korean perspective.
With this brinkmanship, having pledged to be “a responsible nuclear power,” Kim, like his father and grandfather, hopes to extract the maximum beneficial outcome from future negotiations with the international community.
The problem with this formula today is that Kim is now confronted with an American leader whose own playbook mandates never conceding to an enemy. Acceding to direct talks so quickly indicate that Trump will expect significant concessions in exchange, and that means denuclearization rather than acceptance of the status quo.
The risks in front-loading the talks with a presidential meeting are high and could lead to a miscalculation with retro consequences for all. Still, the risk is worth taking. Trump will be aware of North Korea’s historical pattern of abrogating nuclear agreements almost immediately after receiving some sort of economic relief. He is therefore unlikely to give much away from the get-go.
The same levers that can escalate tensions could also create opportunities. Kim’s psychological makeup was forged within an insulated universe, underscored by his perceived birthright to lead his kingdom with deity-like powers. His ruthlessness comes from both a detachment from the people and a child-like petulance unfamiliar with dissent or criticism. Fluffing his nationalistic pride could create opportunities for him to make concessions, while arming him with face-saving fodder that he could leverage at home with his idiosyncratic flourishes, which are deliberately cultivated in the image of his much-revered grandfather.
The US and its allies have previously argued for the resumption of multiparty talks with the North. Although direct talks have now been announced, a robust multilateral diplomatic effort should be orchestrated to give full momentum and weight to any eventual agreement between Trump and Kim.
Continued talks between Moon and Kim are also essential. Furthermore, the US should press Russia and China to make overtures to North Korea while engaging these powers more robustly on the questions of regional security.
Japan too could play its part by engaging constructively with South Korea. The goal is to create a cooperative environment that could foster a lasting diplomatic agreement.
Kim Jong-un has not yet put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile, and we should do everything we can to distance him farther from this definitive nuclear milestone. While it will be very difficult to get Kim to back off from his nuclear program, we can reverse his nuclear momentum with tiered and progressive economic and diplomatic incentives.
The bottom line, though, is still the same: North Korea needs to take steps quickly to denuclearize, or we will be wasting our time.
Jack Devine is a former CIA chief of worldwide operations, president of the New York-based business intelligence firm The Arkin Group, and author of Good Hunting.
Yoshi Yamamoto is a Japanese policy analyst and author of Taken! North Korea’s Criminal Abduction of Citizens of Other Countries.
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