As leaders from North and South Korea met in Pyongyang today during their third round of talks aimed at denuclearizing the peninsula, there are additional signs that Kim Jong-un is moving in that direction.
A Sept. 15 article in the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmum, the official publication of the ruling party establishment, strongly reaffirmed the country’s commitment to developing a new relationship with the United States and the process of denuclearization, North Korean analyst group 38 North reports.
In what looks like a critique of “U.S. conservative politicians,” the piece can also be viewed as attacking political opponents within North Korea. “No doubt as it is intended to do, the article gives Kim Jong Un more space to maneuver in dealing with the U.S. and with South Korea, especially in the upcoming summit with ROK President Moon Jae-in,” 38 North reports.
The article notes further:
When our respected and beloved supreme commander met a South Korean special delegation a while ago, he clearly stated again that it is our resolute position and his own will to completely remove the risk of armed clash and the fear of war from the Korean Peninsula and make this land a peaceful place without nuclear weapons or nuclear threat.
38 North notes:
“The article then deploys a formulation designed to signal (internally as well as externally) that this top-level commitment is unshakeable, no matter what the vicissitudes of the process: “Doing what we say we will do and seeing what we have started through to the end is our mettle and our temperament.”
The article specifically did not claim that things were backsliding with the U.S. on the issue of denuclearization, but rather moving ahead definitively:
The DPRK-US relationship has already shaken off the wrongful habits and prejudice of the past and entered a new historic track.
Those who are like bubbles expelled by the powerful current of a great river will not make the people of the two countries of North Korea and the United States unable to do what they are to do, or make the driving force of improving relations weaken, by putting out sophistry and tugging on the hind legs.
Analysis: Is this the North Korean breakthrough analysts have been hoping to see?
The biggest hurdle to complete denuclearization is related to security guarantees. Kim has always viewed a nuclear capability as a means of ensuring that he will retain power and that his family’s ruling dynasty would continue in perpetuity. The last thing he would want is to give up the only means of retaining power if he wasn’t absolutely certain that neither South Korea nor the U.S. wouldn’t take advantage of his denuclearization to invade and change the ruling North Korean regime.
Another obstacle could also become an asset: China. In past years, Beijing has used North Korean belligerence and unpredictability as a diplomatic tool against the U.S. It has kept Washington off-balance and its attention (and military assets) in the region divided. But since President Trump became commander-in-chief, it could be China sees the dynamics changing in the region and now may seek North Korean denuclearization as something that is in its own interests.
Trump has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to confront China in ways past U.S. leaders have not: Militarily, economically, and diplomatically. Trump’s National Security Strategy identifies China as perhaps the United States’ most potent adversary moving forward, but rather than shrink from the threat the U.S., under this president, is engaging Beijing head-on.
By his actions, Trump may have convinced President Xi Jinping that the CinC’s equally inflammatory rhetoric earlier, regarding the use of preemptive military force to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability, was no bluff and that Trump was prepared to move forward if Pyongyang continued its own provocative actions such as launching ballistic missiles and conducting nuclear tests.
The prospect of U.S. and South Korean forces moving into North Korea, as well as the subsequent collapse of the Kim regime and tens of thousands of North Korean refugees pouring across the border into China, is more than Xi can to accept. Not being powerful enough to stop the U.S. from attacking Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons infrastructure should Trump decide to do so, it could be that Beijing has decided a denuclearized Korean peninsula — and the redeployment of U.S. forces out of South Korea — is a much more desirable course of action.
And, of course, the ongoing trade war may also be factoring into China’s position. If Beijing can be seen as supportive of a major U.S. policy objective — the denuclearization of North Korea — that may convince President Trump to be less inclined to add additional tariffs on Chinese goods (he slapped a 10-percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods today rather than the anticipated 25 percent).
China, as North Korea’s only major ally, plays the long game and it could be that it has led Beijing to ‘recommend’ to Pyongyang that denuclearization is now in everyone’s best interests. It could also be that Chinese guarantees of security are having an effect as well.
Whatever factors have combined to convince Kim that denuclearization is the path forward, based on official North Korean media he seems to have decided on it. Things could change, of course, but for now, it appears as though official policy is to pursue efforts to denuclearize the peninsula.
What would push Kim closer to trusting an eventual security agreement? The U.S. officially declaring the Korean War over. That’s what he wants.
“Kim is not going to give up nuclear weapons if he believes doing so will compromise North Korea’s security. Progress on denuclearization steps — such as a freeze on fissile material production and a declaration detailing North Korea’s program — depends on U.S. support for a joint political declaration on the end of the Korean War,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director, Arms Control Association.
The Rodong Sinmun article makes that same argument.
“With the danger of war constantly looming, it is not possible for us to unilaterally abandon the nuclear weapons that guarantee our sovereignty, right to exist, and right to develop,” the paper said.