New Year, New Strategy: Shifting Policies on North Korea in 2018

After more than a year of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear provocations and a war of words with President Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un began 2018 with a new approach: diplomatic outreach.

A season of North Korea summits began with Kim’s surprise trip to Beijing to meet China’s Xi Jinping before an April summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and an anticipated summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12.

On the eve of the milestone April 27 meeting between Kim and Moon Jae-in, the Wilson Center brought together four foreign policy and North Korea experts to discuss unfolding diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula.

The Moon-Kim summit is the third meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas since 2000. In 2000 and 2007, two previous inter-Korea summits were held in Pyongyang. Since then, however, relations between the two Koreas have been very tense.

“We are cautiously optimistic that this time, the inter-Korean summit and the North Korea-U.S. summit can be a success,” Joonho Cheon, a minister from South Korea’s Embassy to the United States, said in opening remarks on April 25.

“Some people worry about the hurried pace of proceedings,” Cheon said. “The truth is that President Moon has been preparing for this from the moment he took office,” and has presented a consistent policy for peace on the Korean Peninsula since giving a speech in Berlin last year outlining his vision for reconciliation.

The anticipated summit between Trump and Kim would be the first for the two Korean War foes. An Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 to end the fighting. However, no peace treaty was ever signed.

“Changes of government, bottom-up approaches and a lack of trust between North Korea and the United States all contributed to the failure” of previous efforts at negotiation, Cheon said. “This time, the situation is different. Most importantly, these talks are being conducted in a top-down manner.”

“North Korea and the United States can talk directly, building trust without the risk of any third-party miscommunication,” he said.

"Even though [Kim] believes he is going into this as an equal, portraying himself as an equal, we have to remember that this is still a very poor country with a lot at stake down the road..."

Jean H. Lee, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center, said the inter-Korean summit would serve as “an incredible opportunity to see how [Kim] interacts, how he behaves.”

She emphasized the role of the inter-Korean summit “in setting the ground for an upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit.”

However, the former AP Pyongyang bureau chief warned that while Kim is reaching out to world leaders from a relative position of strength, having proven that it has a nuclear capability, it is important to remember that he has adopted this new diplomatic strategy in order to deal with crushing poverty.

“Even though [Kim] believes he is going into this as an equal, portraying himself as an equal, we have to remember that this is still a very poor country with a lot at stake down the road, with sanctions so tight at the moment–sanctions that are going to put a real pinch on the people in the months to come if the situation isn’t resolved,” she said.

Negotiations to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program date back to the early 1990s, with agreements with North Korea signed in 1994 and 2005. Following the failure of those agreements to bring about North Korea’s denuclearization, the world is now paying attention to whether this year’s summits will result in dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Moderator Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center and a former Pentagon official, warned that despite a lull in North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, “North Korea still has not frozen its program.”

“It has frozen certain aspects of testing–no nuclear tests and no testing of certain ballistic missiles–[but] their nuclear scientists are still able to do their work,” he said. “Just so long as they are not conducting these full-out tests, their program is still moving. As time goes along, their capabilities can continue to improve.” Foreign policy expert Jake Sullivan, the Martin R. Flug visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, pointed out that summits typically are the culmination of extended diplomacy, not the starting point as with the Trump-Kim summit.

“It has frozen certain aspects of testing–no nuclear tests and no testing of certain ballistic missiles–[but] their nuclear scientists are still able to do their work.”

“In many ways, inverting the process so that the leaders come first, before you have months of preparation, works to a kind of Trumpian logic of, ‘I go sit down with the big man on the other side, we work out the deal, we solve the problem, and then the sequencing and specifics get left to somebody else,’” he noted.He said Trump “will be inclined to accept a deal on paper that involves commitments by the North Koreans to pursue denuclearization in exchange for commitments by the Americans to do a whole range of things—including potentially a peace treaty, including sanctions relief, including reduction in hostile activities.”Jung H. Pak, Korea chair and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Kim sees the summit “not just a meeting of the heads of state, but as the peak of his strategy, the peak of his goals, and the peak of his accomplishments.”

The former CIA analyst reminded the audience that Kim is “good at maximum pressure and maximum engagement” in efforts to display himself as an “international statesman.”

Pak and Lee cautioned that Kim’s strategy is to “divide and conquer” with bilateral summits, and urged close coordination among the neighbors and allies in the region.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2018, Asia Program. All rights reserved.