What does North Korea want from talks with South Korea?
Dr. Ariel Cohen from the Atlantic Council shares his analysis.
The only way to understand North Korea’s latest ruse—an accepted offer to start talks with the south over Pyongyang’s participation in the Winter Olympics, now set for Tuesday—is to look at the geostrategic situation on the Korean peninsula through the eyes of Kim Jong Un.
And make no mistake, the portly pariah of Pyongyang is in quite the bind. With sanctions starting to take hold, his regime is now paying the price for its nuclear and missile test successes last year. With senior U.S. administration officials all too eager to tout the so-called “military option” for dealing with Kim and his band of bad guys, Pyongyang knew it needed to dial down the temperature or potentially face armed conflict as early as the spring.
So, trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul by negotiating with his fellow Koreans to change the narrative on the peninsula from confrontation to possible cooperation—and kill any talk of war from Washington—makes sound strategic sense for Kim Jong Un.
Indeed, what happens Tuesday will reveal Kim’s true intentions—and they aren’t good. There are, in fact, only two ways these supposed talks can go:
One—A Bribe…or a Wounded Games- In this scenario, Kim’s negotiators ask to participate in the games, but there is a catch: Pyongyang demands sanctions relief or oil or food aid for a guarantee of a peaceful Olympics. Until just recently, this is what I thought Kim was actually aiming for.
Kim, having bought precious time, could then reveal the intent of his strategy: mastery of the reentry technology needed to hit the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon.
Under this scenario, if North Korea did not get what it wanted, it would fire off an ICBM or nuclear weapons test to disrupt and potentially cripple the games with fear—with Seoul losing its $10 Billion-dollar investment.
However, with Washington and Seoul suspending military exercises until late-April, how could Kim think South Korea would bend any more? From a PR standpoint the optics would be bad for Pyongyang, so this seems unlikely, but not unthinkable, depending on Kim’s level of desperation.
Two—Divide and Conquer: But perhaps Kim is a smarter student of the cutthroat game of geopolitics than we give him credit for—seeking to delay a showdown on terms more favorable to him. What if Kim keeps the talks focused on his nation’s participation at the games—and asks for nothing in return?
If talks go smoothly and North Korea does indeed join the games he appears like a winner back home, having secured his nation’s place at the Winter Games. He could even send his sister, Kim Yo Jong, as the lead representative.
Kim could even score another PR victory: imagine athletes from a divided Korea marching into the Olympic stadium together under a unified flag—with members of the Trump family sitting in the same stadium looking on. With there being almost no downside to this for Kim, I would argue this is very likely what North Korea is banking on.
One could easily see a scenario where Kim fires an ICBM deep into the South Pacific, proving he has a viable nuclear weapon that can hit America. At that point, he won’t care about negotiations—as it would now cost Washington potentially Los Angeles or Seattle if it decided upon military action.
And here is where Kim could get quite slick. He could leverage the positive nature of the talks to propose many other sweeteners to enhance inter-Korean ties—restarting joint development projects, offering family reunifications and even going so far to propose an inter-Korean summit between the two heads of state. This would occur of course while not talking to the Trump Administration—and quite on purpose, dodging key questions about Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Negotiations would move slowly—with North Korea adding to its list of demands over time, but not quite sabotaging the talks. Negotiations seem to start to drag on, but overall, there is hope—just what Kim is wants.
An April Showdown?
If this indeed is Kim’s real strategy, then his next move seems quite clear: an April showdown that attempts to truly divide the alliance.
Remember, if history is any guide, North Korea usually begins large scale missile tests in the early spring. For example, Pyongyang tested its Hwasong-12 missile three separate times last April, with one test ending in an epic crash landing likely killing scores of innocent people inside North Korea.
What Kim could be aiming for is to get South Korea locked into negotiations, and then, start its missile or even nuclear weapons testing program back up. Seoul would be forced into making a tough choice: does it continue negotiations, but look weak at home and with the Trump administration ready to push for even more sanctions or potentially even a military strike? While President Moon might be talking tough now, he could very well fall for Kim’s trap, and try to get the Trump administration to stand down, hoping negotiations bear some fruit. How the Trump administration would respond, considering the back and forth nature of North Korea policy of late, is anyone’s guess.
From here, the situation could get even worse. With U.S.-South Korea military exercises now set for late-April as noted above, we could face a situation where the potential collapse of negotiations – thanks to missile or even nuclear tests and military exercises – creates a pressure cooker on the peninsula. Kim, having bought precious time, could then reveal the intent of his strategy: mastery of the reentry technology needed to hit the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon. In fact, this might be why Kim has not re-tested the Hwasong-15, the missile he fired in late November, with his group of mad scientists needing critical time to solve this key technological challenge. One could easily see a scenario where Kim fires an ICBM deep into the South Pacific with an unarmed warhead making it through the atmosphere, proving he has a viable nuclear weapon that can hit America. At that point, North Korea won’t care about negotiations—as it would now cost Washington potentially Los Angeles or Seattle if it decided upon military action.
Alas, no matter which way negotiations go Tuesday, know this: Pyongyang clearly has a trick up its sleeve. The only question is what.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.