Many North Korea experts and journalists around the world are still skeptical about whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a fanatical believer in nukes, has really made a strategic decision to denuclearize his nation. This writer is one of them.
In fact, Kim has had a clever and hard-nosed sense of tactics since childhood. One should be careful of his true intentions, despite his repeated statements of denuclearization. He may be just very skillfully playing a diplomatic card under the guise of his country getting rid of nuclear weapons.
Kenji Fujimoto, the sushi chef who personally served late Kim Jong-il for 13 years, chronicles one of the most remarkable episodes of how shrewd the younger Kim has been. Fujimoto, who was reported to be Kim Jong-un’s favorite playmate in Pyongyang when Kim junior was aged between 7 and 18, wrote of this episode in some of his books, including The North’s Successor, Kim Jong-un (2010, Chuokoran-Shinsha, Japanese).
When Kim was in his mid-teens, he often played basketball, his favorite sport, on the special private courts established in every guest house around the nation. After a game, Kim always held a post-match evaluation meeting with his teammates, pointing out plays that were good or bad. He would effusively praise teammates who performed particularly well, such as making a good pass during the game. At the same time, he would very harshly scold teammates who performed poorly and made mistakes.
To Fujimoto’s big surprise, after one post-match meeting, Kim smilingly approached him, and said: “Didn’t I come down too hard on him? Do you think he is okay? Can he get back on his feet?” Meantime, Kim was sticking his tongue out at Fujimoto playfully. Thus, Kim was able to act with tenderness and harshness in a very calculated way even in his mid-teens, according to Fujimoto, who now lives in Pyongyang and runs a Japanese restaurant there.
Once a knave, always a knave. One can’t change human nature easily. Twenty years later, the grown-up Kim may be playing a manufactured role again, this time in the real world while showing his strong leadership.
Purpose of Kim’s current strategy
Michael J. Green, the Japan chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs (May 16, 2018) that what North Korea really wants from the first-ever United States-North Korea summit is “probably not denuclearization but the opposite—acceptance of its nuclear weapons status.”
By showing his apparent willingness to denuclearize the nation, Kim seems to be scrambling to get relaxation of the economic sanctions and attain economic rewards through a gradual, step-by-step process of nuclear elimination—which may turn out not to be realized in the future.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s cancelation of the summit with Kim shows that the U.S. and North Korea remain unable to narrow this major point of conflict—whether Pyongyang should abandon its nuclear weapons first or take a gradual, step-by-step process of nuclear elimination. And there is a possibility that the two nations will be hard-pressed to find political accommodation on this point, even if the U.S.-North Korea summit is successfully held on June 12 in Singapore.
“We cannot trust President Trump’s words only, and we need to think about how to establish the security system,” said Ri Pyong-hwi, an associate professor of Korea University in Tokyo, the one and only pro-North Korea university in Japan, at the Asia Press Club’s monthly meeting in Tokyo on May 26.
Ri emphasized that, if the U.S. wants to demand North Korea dismantle existing nuclear weapons, it needs to sign a peace accord with Pyongyang and end hostile relations through the normalization of diplomatic ties.
Shim Kyu-sun, former managing editor for the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, echoed Ri’s views. Shim said at a forum held at Keio University in Tokyo on May 19 that Kim Jong-un is hoping to obtain a complete, verifiable, and irreversible guarantee (CVIG) of his nation, instead of being forced to accept the principle of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
In contrast, said Ri, hawks such as Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton have not only stuck to the principle of CVID of the North’s nuclear weapons, but also emphasized that they are demanding permanent, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (PVID) to denuclearize the North forever.
Wide Perception Gap Between Washington and Pyongyang
What, then, is the cause of the conflicting points of view between the two countries? It may well be the result of the wide perception gap between Washington and Pyongyang about why North Korea launched an omni-directional foreign policy earlier this year.
U.S. officials believe the economic sanctions applied by the international community and the military pressure by American forces have bludgeoned North Korea into submission, resulting in Pyongyang’s revamping of its approach into a diplomatic offensive. The U.S. view is that the sanctions have begun to inflict damage on the North Korean economy, especially since the beginning of 2018.
Meanwhile, North Korean officials think the opposite. Their view is that North Korea launched a diplomatic offensive against South Korea, the U.S., and China because it had already gained strong self-confidence in its nuclear and missile deterrent power against the U.S.
Kim had accelerated the pace of missile launches and nuclear tests until late 2017 with the hope of prompting future negotiations with Washington. North Koreans have long expressed the desire for direct talks with the U.S., to sign a peace accord with Washington, and end hostile relations through the normalization of diplomatic ties. (RELATED ARTICLE: Credible Threat: Expert Warns North Korea has 100 Nuclear Sites, Chemical and Biological Weapons)
Kim’s “byungjin roson” policy adopted in March 2013 envisioned a program of economic growth in parallel with the North’s nuclear development. For this goal, in the long term, Kim seeks foreign aid and the lifting of sanctions to foster the nation’s greater economic prosperity. But these aims remain subordinate to its national security. Kim views the current international sanctions as a short-term cost in the long-term aim of forcing negotiations on more favorable terms.
The North’s Negotiating Leverage
Right after Pyongyang successfully tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 29, 2017, it declared it had achieved its long-cherished goal of full-fledged nuclear statehood. Since then, it has repeatedly claimed the nation is confident it has enough deterrence power against the U.S., resulting in a turn to the current “peace offensive.”
In the view of most military experts, though, Pyongyang made its declaration well before the technological completion of its nuclear capabilities and has not equipped its ICBMs with re-entry technology.
Perhaps Kim has not completely made up his mind on the strategic decision to give up his missiles and nuclear weapons. He still may be following a two-pronged strategy of either maintaining or giving up his nukes, depending on what happens in the negotiations.
Kim has not shown any clear roadmap towards denuclearization, either in the April 20 statements from the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers Party or in the outcome of the third inter-Korean summit on April 27. Therefore, it seems highly likely that Kim wants to make Washington recognize North Korea as a nuclear state and buy time for the future, just like China did in 1970s and Pakistan did in the 2000s.
There is a possibility that President Trump will be in a rush to make a deal and could agree just to let Pyongyang abandon its ICBMs capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Possibly, he would try simply to get a fair share of credit for his presidential legacy and therefore agree to such a limited deal, especially ahead of the looming U.S. mid-term elections in November.
Kosuke Takahashi is a journalist. He is Tokyo correspondent of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.