President Trump accepted an invitation last week to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a surprising breakthrough after a flurry of diplomatic activity between North and South Korea in February.
After a long period of tense hostilities, what’s behind the apparent North Korean olive branch?
North Korea’s sudden turnabout is remarkable, given the barrage of nuclear and missile tests over the past two years — including 17 full-flight missile tests in 2017. Last September, the regime conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test to date.
For years, Pyongyang has stated it would never give up its nuclear weapons — yet Kim apparently offered to discuss the DPRK nuclear program. Just months earlier, news that North Korea had developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) prompted a Trump threat to unleash “fire and fury.”
So what’s different now? Three scenarios might explain North Korea’s turn to diplomatic engagement:
1. First and foremost, North Korea has achieved full nuclear-weapons capability. With a credible deterrent in hand, Pyongyang can claim a stronger negotiating position than before. Last November, North Korea fired its new Hwasong-15. The height and trajectory of the ICBM demonstrated North Korea’s ability to hit “any part of the continental United States.”
North Korea declared the test a resounding success. As Kim Jong Un stated, his country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Some analysts doubt North Korea has the weapons technology to prevent its warheads from overheating during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Nevertheless, the launch effectively demonstrated North Korea’s rapid advance in missile capability.
Analysts have long said North Korea would not be willing to negotiate a nuclear freeze until it could strike all of the continental United States. The North Koreans believe they have now accomplished that goal.
2. Economic sanctions and pressure are working. The Trump administration has stuck to the narrative that “maximum pressure” has worked, and economic sanctions have begun to take their bite on the regime. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 9 claimed, “Look, what we know is that the maximum pressure campaign has clearly been effective.”
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser who has been acting as an envoy between Kim and Trump, also credited the White House’s maximum-pressure policy in bringing about the diplomatic breakthrough.
Economic sanctions have remained the key component of the maximum-pressure strategy. As recently as Feb. 23, the Trump administration enacted its “largest North Korean sanctions package” to date. Although skeptics may point to loopholes, including the lack of secondary sanctions against noncompliant Chinese banks, the North Korean leadership is looking for sanctions relief.
More specifically, having accomplished its nuclear objectives, North Korea may be shifting its attention to economic development, the second track of its byungjin (parallel) strategy. However, economic growth will be difficult to achieve while sanctions remain in place.
3. South Korean diplomacy has worked. It’s probable that South Korea played a major role in encouraging inter-Korea talks and U.S.-North Korea dialogue. Following Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day message, the Moon Jae-in government in Seoul seized a diplomatic opening with the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Moon met with senior North Korean officials, including Kim’s sister and the vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee during the opening and closing ceremonies, respectively. Shortly after the Olympics, a senior South Korean delegation, led by Chung Eui-yong, traveled to Pyongyang to discuss details of an inter-Korea summit planned for late April. The leaders of the two Koreas have not met in 11 years.
After a warm reception from Kim Jong Un, Chung reported back to Seoul and then immediately left for Washington to deliver the North Korean leader’s message to the White House. Chung later delivered the announcement of a Trump-Kim meeting from the White House driveway.
South Korean policymakers have long feared “Korea passing” — the idea that South Korea might be ignored or “passed over” on issues concerning its own interests, particularly the North Korean issue. The Moon government was particularly concerned that great powers such as the United States and China would dictate any policy outcome with North Korea with little input from South Korea.
To prevent this, South Korea took the lead in pushing the engagement agenda forward. Structural conditions might explain the timing of North Korea’s turnabout, but active South Korean diplomacy also helped encourage North Korean leaders to step out of its shell, providing some diplomatic cover for its sudden turn toward engagement.
Any and all of these factors may be behind North Korea’s sudden willingness to talk. Of course, there are any number of questions as the world awaits both an inter-Korea summit and a U.S.-North Korea meeting this spring. From this historic turn of events, it remains to be seen whether all parties, including North Korea, remain willing to engage longtime rivals in an effort to build a lasting peace.
Andrew Yeo is associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a member of the The National Committee on North Korea. He is co-editor (with Danielle Chubb) of the forthcoming book, North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks.