North Korea to Washington: It's Your Move Now
- North Korea will continue to use inter-Korean dialogue to break out of the constraints of the U.S. relationship.
- But Pyongyang's apparent outreach to the United States could be contingent on changes to U.S. forces in the Korean Peninsula — concessions the United States is unlikely to give.
- While China and Russia will push for a continued easing of tensions, U.S. ally Japan will be wary of a sudden shift in the U.S. position.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set late April as the date for the third inter-Korean summit, to be held in Panmunjom. Kim said he would be willing to hold talks with the United States geared toward normalization of relations and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and is willing to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests while engaged in dialogue. Kim said denuclearization was his father's dying wish, and something for which he also strived.
This is not the first time North Korea has used a near brink-of-war moment to try and break out of the constraints of its contentious relationship with the United States. The North used the 1993-94 nuclear crisis to obtain the Agreed Framework, and there were plans for the first inter-Korean summit before Kim Il Sung died that summer. After the North's 1998 attempted satellite launch, which overflew Japan, the North ultimately pressed for a diplomatic breakout, hosting then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in the first inter-Korean summit and significantly expanding diplomatic relations around the world. The North's first nuclear test in 2006 led to a brief breakout and the second inter-Korean summit in 2007. In each case, the North used the crises to find a way to expand its operational space, to ease sanctions and to change the dynamic around the Peninsula, even if only briefly.
It is important to understand just what North Korea is and is not saying. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is not merely about the removal of North Korea's nuclear potential. It is also about the U.S. force structure in the Peninsula, and potentially even the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Kim said the removal of the North's nuclear weapons would be contingent on the guaranteed safety of his government and the removal of threats against the North — but the North frequently refers to the U.S. military forces in the South as being a threat against the North. The suspension of missile and nuclear tests may not include shorter range systems (the North debuted what appeared to be variants of the Iskander missile system at its most recent military parade, but hasn't yet tested these systems), and it also may not include satellite launches, something North Korea claims it has the international right to carry out.
What the North has done is place the United States in a situation where it must make the next move. The South has already agreed to the summit, and there are unconfirmed reports that the South also told the North that the April joint military exercises with the United States would still happen. But Washington will have to see if it is ready to re-enter dialogue with the North. So far, the official U.S. conditions were that talks must be about denuclearization of the North, and that the North would need to show its sincerity through the suspension of nuclear and missile tests. Pyongyang has offered each of these conditions. But Washington was waiting to engage in dialogue until North Korea was in much worse shape from sanctions and isolation. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration does not want another round of dialogue that leads simply to another delay, that leaves the North's weapons program largely intact, and pushes any resolution — or conflict — farther down the road rather than resolving the problem now.
North Korea has set the stage for a U.S. response. The South will strongly push for the dialogue to carry on, and for the inter-Korean tensions to ease so Seoul can focus on its domestic economic troubles. China and Russia will come out and demand the United States respond in the affirmative. Washington has been adamant that it wants to pursue a maximum pressure campaign, and has rolled in its key allies, including Japan, which will be wary of any sudden shift in the U.S. position. If the United States re-engages now, it risks a repeat of past efforts. If it fails to engage, it risks undermining the relationship with South Korea and a shift in international cooperation for the continued containment strategy. Like his father and his grandfather before him, Kim Jong Un has proven — at least for the moment — to be adept at reading the international situation, and is making the effort to exploit these differences to gain time and space. The next move will be from Washington.