Kim may be ready to freeze his nuclear program while considering US, South Korean and Russian energy calculations.
By Joergen Oerstroem Moeller*
Anyone other than Donald Trump would have referred Kim Jong-un’s invitation to the national security machinery, which undoubtedly would have led to lengthy analysis and a recommendation to say no. Such a meeting is out of context with US policies since 1953, and only an atypical leader who revels in disruption could turn affairs upside down, making the unthinkable thinkable. Calculations on energy may be driving overtures among South Korea, North Korea and Trump, and sanctions may have forced Kim to change track because leaders cannot disregard public hardship for long without the risk of discontent.
Kim accelerated nuclear and missile tests to the point where he likely feels the arsenal is sufficiently operative, and the United States fears that this is the case. A new president in South Korea is open to his overtures. Kim may recognize that his cards will never be better for taking a seat at the negotiation table and his long-term future pursuing belligerent policies is not promising. Do not forget that Kim is one of the few North Koreans who spent a considerable amount of his life in Western countries, educated in Switzerland for up to seven years and reportedly visiting several other nations under pseudonym. North Korea has internet access, and Kim knows how fragile and backward his country is – a Potemkin village with façades masking many problems. Kim also differs from his father and grandfather, both of whom only knew the West from limited newspapers and television, and probably realizes that his regime, not to mention himself, live on borrowed time. He can no longer survive by isolating the country from the rest of the world, pursuing policies contradictory to global rules, and financing these policies by obscure and illegal activities being unearthed in the wake of harsher sanctions – sending workers abroad and confiscating their earnings, selling drugs and money laundering.
North Korea is uncomfortable about excessive dependence on China, and relations have cooled. A rising China may no longer regard the Korean Peninsula as Mao Zedong once did, relying on a Chinese proverb – “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” – to emphasize North Korea as a vital geographical security buffer. Circumstances have changed. China is expected to soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, and its military is modernizing. US military action against China using South Korean territory is unlikely. Since being elevated to leader in 2011, Kim has not visited China, and Kim snubbed Song Tao, head of the Communist Party of China’s international department, when he visited North Korea in 2017.
During the Vietnam War, the United States saw Vietnam as a stooge for China in its power game, not understanding the history of the two countries and intense Vietnamese dislike for the Chinese. The United States should not repeat this mistake with North Korea. There is little love between the Chinese and the Koreans. A 2004 decision by the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to classify the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, 37 BC to 668 AD, as a vassal state touched a nerve among Koreans, opening a door for cooperation between North and South to “defend Korean identity” as they saw it. Both countries have accused China of reinterpretation of history.
Trump, with his administration under investigation for helping Russia interfere with the 2016 US presidential election, is desperate to present a victory at home, caring little about long-term strategic repercussions. For years, North Korea insisted on negotiations with the United States and over the past year identified South Korea as the weak link. South Korea would suffer most in the event of a military conflict. US officials maintain they do not require South Korea’s approval for an attack on North Korea. But not securing such approval for using South Korean airspace and territory would make a US military intervention more challenging.
If North Korea and South Korea agree to live with each other, the equation changes. Countless events have nourished mutual distrust, yet both are Korean and recognize that limited cooperation might bring benefits. South Korea ranks among the world’s top five importers for liquefied natural gas, crude oil and coal, according to the US Energy Information Administration. One possible step might be agreement on a pipeline transiting North Korea territory for transporting Russian gas to South Korea. Russia’s Vladimir Putin raised such a possibility with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in September: “We could deliver Russian pipeline gas to Korea and integrate the power lines and railway systems of Russia, the Republic of Korea and North Korea. The implementation of these initiatives will be not only economically beneficial, but will also help build up trust and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” During the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Moon confirmed interest in stronger Russian–South Korean cooperation in nine areas including the gas sector. South Korea’s energy costs would decrease, North Korea would get paid, and Russia would have tangible interest in guaranteeing peace on the peninsula. China, sharing Russia’s wish of fewer US troops in Korea, might join in some formal guarantee of territorial integrity.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons would be a pawn. South Korean sources suggest Kim is willing to negotiate with the United States on abandoning his country’s nuclear weapons and suspending nuclear and missile tests while talks are underway. Skepticism about such promises is justified. Costs of a nuclear missile program are enormous, and it’s not likely that capability would be thrown away impulsively. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, not possessing nuclear weapons, serve as a lesson. Time and time again, North Korea entered negotiations to buy time and aid. But the United States may find it preferable to test for changed circumstances and a new North Korean posture rather than switching on the autopilot of saying no or insisting on preconditions that neither party would accept. Kim, like his father and grandfather, maneuvers to survive. Weapons of mass destruction were built to serve that goal, and setting limits, agreeing to inspections, could serve a purpose, too.
The United States may be stalling. If so, it will be driven into a corner with Japan sidelined at tremendous strategic cost. The United States could lose a lucrative market for its own future gas exports, explicitly mentioned by Trump after meeting Moon in June 2017, with South Korea buying from Russia instead. Trump may sense such a deal is in the making and choose to preempt strategic defeat without even trying negotiations. Or, he may regard the lesser risk as compared to alternatives, joining Kim in an unorthodox meeting that appeals to his sense of drama and posture as dealmaker.
Of course, there is the possibility that neither party has the stamina, willpower and determination to go through the tedious, time-consuming, yet essential preparatory phase without which such a meeting cannot succeed. In other words, maybe the two men are not serious, setting up a game to pin blame on the other for not trying – not unusual in diplomacy. If so, Trump can and will say that he responded quickly and positively, but became disappointed upon discovering that Kim played for the gallery. It’s a safe conclusion, considering the personalities, to expect dressage with both leaders aiming to come out on top. Kim scored first by taking the initiative, and Trump equalized immediately.
*Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is former state-secretary with the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry and a visiting senior fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. He is also an adjunct professor at Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School and an honorary alumni of the University of Copenhagen.