Negative Scenario I

The working-level talks between the US and North Korea in Stockholm on October 4 and 5 fell apart after just one day. It was anticipated that the meeting would end without any significant result for two reasons. First, North Korea committed to the meeting only when Chairman Kim, invited to an unscheduled meeting with President Trump at Panmunjom, had agreed to holding working-level talks soon. Previously, North Korea had offered a deadline of resuming talks by the end of 2019 despite focusing, in the meantime, on speeding up development of new weapons systems.1 Second, there was no indication that North Korea was ready to accept US demands for dismantling its WMD program, which was one of the key reasons why the Hanoi summit in February failed. North Korea seemed to believe that the ball was in Washington’s court, as it kept asking the US to come back to the negotiating table with a new proposal.2 Even as President Trump tries smoothing the environment for continuing negotiations with Kim, Kim remains unpersuaded that Trump will be willing to make a compromise that falls short of a bipartisan US demand of completely denuclearizing the North.

The ongoing situation confirms South Korea’s limited role in facilitating dialogue between the US and North Korea. South Korea tried to bridge the wide gulf separating the US and North Korea but did not receive much credit from North Korea. Pro-North Korea media continue to denounce it for trying to play a mediating role, claiming that Seoul cannot do anything independently of Washington.3 North Korea’s refusal to allow South Korea’s live broadcast of the World Cup qualifier between the two Koreas in Pyongyang is another indication that inter-Korean ties are unlikely to improve anytime soon. Any economic cooperation projects between the two will be put on hold until the US and North Korea agree on practical measures toward denuclearization, which will further frustrate those who do not want to admit that the fate of inter-Korean détente hangs on US-North Korea nuclear talks. Then, the key question becomes whether North Korea will walk away from the talks by the end of this year. No one can be sure about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, but one can present a slightly optimistic view about continuation of nuclear talks for the following reasons.

North Korea may have at least four reasons to make further diplomatic overtures and to be forthcoming on denuclearization talks.4 First, it is possible that North Korea is suffering from the international sanctions and hence will be pursuing short-term benefits from sanctions relief. However, it is not likely that the US will lift sanctions unless the North takes practical, concrete measures toward denuclearization. North Korea could just muddle through without actually engaging in talks because of many loopholes in the current sanctions regime.5 However, the leadership in Pyongyang must be concerned about the political cost associated with declaring a shift of policy to focus more on the economy. It asked North Koreans to endure tough times until the country becomes not only militarily strong but also economically prosperous. The logic behind this was that if North Korea can stabilize the security environment by developing nuclear weapons, it can work on its economic development. In this case, North Korea would define the denuclearization talks as a success once the obstacles hindering the recovery of its economy have been removed. To do so, North Korea cannot walk away until it reaches the point where the US agrees to allowing at least conditional, partial easing of sanctions. 

Second, it is possible that North Korea is testing the waters, precariously tiptoeing around the line between two different reactions from Washington—showing tolerance and mounting pressure against the regime. Currently, Trump is downplaying the series of short-range missiles and submarine-launched missiles because North Korea is signaling that the window for dialogue is still open. The reaction from Washington would have been different if there were no chance of continuing talks. Context matters. Hence, North Korea can use this strategy only when it shows that it is seeking diplomatic solutions with the US. When Trump’s personalized diplomacy ends and people begin to think that all peaceful options have been exhausted, no one can guarantee that the backlash following negotiation failures will not be severe. North Korea can slow down the speed of negotiations, criticizing others for not accommodating its demands. But walking away from the negotiating table without legitimate cause would not be in its interest.

Third, North Korea may feel good about striking a deal with the US based on its increasing confidence in its nuclear weapons capabilities. It demonstrated its capability to develop ICBMs and ratcheted up its rhetoric against US threats of ‘fire and fury’ in 2017. In his New Year’s Day address to the nation in 2018, Kim Jong-un stressed that the US will never wage a war against North Korea because the entire continental US is within the scope of North Korea’s nuclear strikes.6 At the same time, his remarks were very calculated, hinting that there was no better alternative to a peaceful dialogue in order to de-escalate the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As many pundits note, North Korea will only give up its nuclear deterrent on conditions that the US and US allies find unacceptable.7 It expects that the parties concerned will have to choose between agreeing on a political settlement with some doubts and continuing endless talks. Talks aimed at achieving complete and verifiable denuclearization of the North may end up seeking risk-reduction to find an agreeable equilibrium on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea already succeeded in scaling down the US-South Korea joint military exercises and speaks of security guarantees to be addressed at future talks with the US. In this case, the North may feel comfortable with continuing talks until it achieves a compromise from the US.

Fourth, it is possible that North Korea desires to be recognized as a completely normal state in the international community. In order to do so, certain conditions should be met. North Korea must restore its status as a non-nuclear weapons state within the NPT regime, not as a nuclear-armed state in violation of the treaty. Sanctions on the regime, which implies that the international community is not recognizing North Korea as a responsible member in compliance with the international obligations, should be removed. IAEA confirmation that North Korea’s nuclear activities are entirely peaceful would provide confidence to the international community. All of these are possibilities were North Korea to accept the terms and conditions under discussion in the negotiations with the US.

Whatever the reason that might draw North Korea to the negotiating table, we would come to the same conclusion: North Korea’s interest lies in continuing to engage in dialogue. What does that imply for inter-Korean relations? It is likely that North Korea will take an ambivalent attitude toward South Korea. Hedging behavior could continue to be its policy option because North Korea would want to keep South Korea on the sidelines when it asks the US to adjust the role of the US-South Korea alliance. However, South Korea is still a viable tool for North Korea to get its message across to the international community that the opportunity to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula remains. Its role becomes more significant if North Korea were to reach a deadlock in the negotiations with the US.

North Korea clearly is attempting to couple denuclearization and alliance issues. Its proposal for denuclearization talks in 2018 came with preconditions; that is, “as long as the military threats against North Korea are resolved and the security of the North Korean regime is guaranteed.”8 At the same time, it was emphasized that North Korea is interested in “a dialogue in which each party can discuss and resolve issues of mutual interest on equal ground.”9 What it put previously on the table keeps coming back: declaring an end to the Korean War, dismantling the UN Command, withdrawing US forces in Korea, and signing a peace treaty.10 Therefore, South Korea’s being on the sidelines of the denuclearization talks deepens concern that South Korea’s national security matters are in the hands of others.

However, North Korea will think that South Korea is relevant to the denuclearization talks because South Korea can help diffuse the risk of a potential breakdown of the negotiating process. The South Korean government may see its political capital at stake if talks continue without tangible outcomes and therefore will continue to work with the US to narrow the gaps in the goals, approaches, and priorities to achieve real progress in the negotiations. Besides, in the long run, denuclearization includes not only removing nuclear weapons from North Korea but also dismantling related facilities, converting military programs for civilian uses, decontamination, environmental purification, providing equipment and training for proliferation prevention, and other assistance activities. It is in North Korea’s interest not to undermine its relationship with South Korea, which will be willing to pay more than any others for sustainable development of North Korea. Thus, a negative scenario of marginalizing South Korea while seeking to cut a deal with the US detrimental to the alliance would be limited by the desirability both of capitalizing on the South’s strong interest in keeping the talks between the US and North Korea going and by recognition of future funds expected from Seoul.

1. Timothy Martin, “North Korea’s Kim Gives US End-of-Year Deadline on Nuclear Talks,” The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2019.

2. Minju Kim, “North Korea gives Trump administration year-end deadline to change ‘hostile policy’ if it wants nuclear talks to continue,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2019.

3. Adam Taylor, “N. Korean media criticizes S. Korea, warns that family reunions may be scrapped,” The Washington Post, July 20, 2018.

4. For further discussion of the four hypotheses, see Jina Kim, “Issues Regarding North Korean Denuclearization Roadmap with a Focus on Implications from the Iran Nuclear Deal,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. 30, No.2 (2018).

5. On the loopholes in the sanctions regime, see Jina Kim, “Assessing Export Controls of Strategic Items to North Korea,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2017).

6. Kim Jong-un, “New Year’s Speech,” KCNA, January 1, 2018.

7. Robert Einhorn, “Let’s get realistic on North Korea and Iran,” “Order from Chaos: Foreign Policy in a Troubled World,” Brookings Institution, October 5, 2018.

8. Kim Jong-un, “New Year’s Speech.”

9. Right after the Singapore summit, North Korea said,” President Trump has expressed his intention to lift the sanctions as the relationship improves.” It also said, “If the U.S. takes steps to improve relations first, North Korea can take the next step.”

10. In August 2013 when Vice Foreign Minister Ahn Myung-hoon had an unofficial 1.5 track meeting with the US, North Korea proposed placing various issues on the agenda, including easing military tensions, establishing a peace regime, and building a nuclear-free world. In July 2016 when North Korea’s government spokesperson issued a statement, North Korea demanded disclosure of all US nuclear assets in the South, verification of bases where nuclear weapons have been stored, assurance that the US would not bring strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, provision of a security guarantee not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, and a declaration withdrawing the USFK. “Statement by DPRK government spokesperson,” July 7, 2016, reported in Suho Yim, "Where does the nuclear issue go?" Tongil Hankuk, No. 358, October 2013: 20-21.