After keeping the world waiting and watching, first for a “Christmas Present” to the U.S., and then for a New Year’s shift charting a new course, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered neither.
Instead, he asserted that he is no longer constrained by a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, although he appeared to leave the door open for concessions and further talks.
In remarks carried by state media, Kim on Tuesday told a plenum of the ruling Workers Party Central Committee that Pyongyang had unilaterally halted nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests in order to build confidence with the U.S. But the U.S., he charged, “remained unchanged in its ambition to stifle” North Korea.
He pointed to ongoing U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, which Kim argued President Trump had promised to stop, and U.S. sales of advanced weapons to South Korea. The U.S. has, in fact, scaled back military exercises to facilitate diplomacy, but has also sold F-35 fighter jets to South Korea.
Under such circumstances, Kim told the plenum, there is no reason “for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer,” adding that the U.S. stance was “chilling our efforts for worldwide nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.”
Rather than marking the complete collapse of negotiations or diplomacy, Kim acknowledged the current stalemate with the U.S., but insisted he would not passively wait for things to improve.
“We should never dream that the U.S. and the hostile forces would leave us alone to live in peace, but we should make [a] frontal breakthrough with the might of self-reliance,” he told the plenum as it wrapped up four days of meetings.
Even before Kim’s remarks, analysts predicted that if he ended his nuclear moratorium and walked out on talks with the U.S., it would leave the door open for further negotiations.
“I don’t think it will take any action to damage its relationship with the U.S. irreparably,” says Park Hyeong-jung, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul.
Pyongyang had warned it could take a more hardline “new way” if the U.S. failed to meet its demands for concessions by year’s end. But the deadline passed, and Kim made no mention of any policy shift in his speech.
“Kim Jong Un will have to stage some anger at the U.S. and chastise them” for ignoring his deadline, Park predicts, but could be willing to return to the negotiating table by summer if the U.S. shows signs of accommodating Pyongyang.
Nuclear stance may be tied to Trump political prospects
Analysts believe Donald Trump’s prospects for surviving an impeachment process and winning a second term in the White House are key to Pyongyang’s calculations, and are likely the main reason Kim left the door open to negotiations.
“Donald Trump happens to be the first sitting U.S. president to view North Korea as a source of political victory, for domestic purposes,” says Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow and expert on North Korea at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank.
And while Pyongyang has said they have no intention of handing Trump any victories, they see his eagerness to tout his achievements to a domestic audience as a source of leverage over him.
On the other hand, “if they calculate that President Trump won’t be re-elected next year, then their approach is going to fundamentally change,” Go says, and Pyongyang could unleash provocations that leave little room for compromise.
But analysts also see a prolonged stalemate over North Korea’s nukes as all but inevitable.
“Nuclear weapons are very good for self-defense, and for preserving the existing status quo,” argues Texas A&M University political scientist Matt Fuhrmann. But he says they’re not especially useful for forcing changes to the status quo, as in “using nuclear threats to blackmail your adversaries.”
Fuhrmann says that Kim Jong Un has been “relatively successful” in acquiring nuclear weapons in order to ensure the survival of his regime, and it is unlikely that he could be compelled to give them up.
But using nuclear threats to extract concessions from the U.S., such as security guarantees or the sanctions relief Pyongyang seeks, would be far more difficult. This is because actually using the nukes would all but ensure the regime’s extinction, Fuhrmann says, even if they continue to build their arsenal.
North Korea’s only remaining tool is nuclear brinksmanship — essentially bluffing opponents into thinking Pyongyang might actually use atomic weapons, even though it is plainly evident that the cost of doing so is prohibitive for both sides.
Fuhrmann’s theory has implications for policy: a nuclear-armed North Korea is not the apocalyptic event some fear, “even if we might prefer a situation where they were not to have nuclear weapons.”
Fuhrmann advises that a complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament is “somewhat unrealistic.” Better, he says, for the U.S. to “look for a deal that allows us to place meaningful limits on North Korean capabilities.”