In the months following the March 8th announcement of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s unexpected offer to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean and American political and military officials, journalists, and analysts alike have repeated the same phrase: “cautiously optimistic.” It almost seems as if the phrase is a coordinated talking point. Putting the talking points and reasons behind such cautiousness and optimism aside, there is one unanswered question that is particularly important to address: Why now?
It is necessary to consider why, after decades of sanctions and 65 years of armistice, the North Korean regime has now decided to make diplomatic overtures to its southern neighbor and with the United States. It becomes increasingly important to accurately predict Mr. Kim’s motivations as his tone and posture fluctuations between his recent amiability and his more usual antagonism. As the diplomatic posturing “game” continues, there are two realistic possibilities driving Mr. Kim’s words and actions: A desire for economic relief or a setback in the current nuclear program. While these are not mutually exclusive, identifying Mr. Kim’s primary motivator will facilitate different approaches to any meetings or negotiations.
It is possible that the most recent rounds of economic sanctions have finally hurt the legitimacy of the Kim regime, and Mr. Kim seeks economic relief. Accounting for 80 percent of North Korea’s trade, China’s newly committed support for United Nations sanctions against the Kim regime threatens North Korea’s already withered economy. It is also possible that North Korean citizens face unprecedented famine; they already face chronic pharmaceutical shortages. Mr. Kim may be judging his regime’s survival to depend upon the lifting of economic sanctions. The nation could be facing desperation fueled social unrest or a demographic crisis. If true, this scenario would support aggressive denuclearization stance on the part of Mr. Trump.
This is an ideal position for the United States to find itself in and there are reports of the intelligence community support for this scenario. The Trump administration could approach talks with the upper hand, and set stringent conditions for denuclearization, including inspections and bans on dual-use materials while making small concessions on sanctions in exchange for proof of progress.
Yet, this possibility is in sharp contrast with the Kim family history. In 2017, before the latest sanctions, North Koreans consumed, on average, less than a pound of food a day. Mr. Kim held no more concern for his citizens at that time then his father exhibited, repeatedly prioritizing the nuclear program over his starving citizens. Thus, while Mr. Kim’s recent state visits to China could suggest he is looking to lessen the Chinese government’s commitment to the sanctions, this explanation requires a nearly unimaginable shift in Mr. Kim’s values and priorities, a newly found empathy and concern for his own people.
It is more likely that the North Korean nuclear program has hit a major setback, possibly in the development of a long-range ballistic missile, and Mr. Kim, feeling the pressure of an unpredictable occupant in the White House, seeks to relieve tensions while Pyongyang overcomes a technical challenge. There are also Chinese reports of a collapse at Punggye-ri, a key North Korean nuclear testing facility, further suggesting technical difficulties are a motivating factor for Mr. Kim. If like others before it, North Korea’s nuclear program is floundering, then Mr. Kim is playing for time, and Mr. Trump has little to spare. This possibility, highly probable given North Korea’s nuclear timeline over the last six decades, has serious implications for the U.S./ROK alliance and U.S. force projection in the Pacific. Not only is this possibility less likely to set conditions needed for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, if the United States allows North Korea to stall for too long, the U.S. and its allies may end up facing the powerful nuclear weapon that Mr. Kim claims to be willing to give up. In this situation, time is precious.
The Trump administration should seek the actualization of talks as soon as possible, keeping the focus on denuclearization, including the first step of receiving Pyongyang’s declaration of nuclear components (and comparing it to our internal intelligence estimates). Mr. Trump should also give Mr. Kim the chance to show good faith. Such a showing would not have to be directly related to nuclear capabilities. The United States could offer some measure of international aid in exchange for Mr. Kim granting humanitarian workers access to North Korean territory. If Mr. Kim is playing for time, he is unlikely to maintain a prolonged show of good faith while under active pressure to denuclearize. Indeed, he may already be struggling to maintain his act.
About the Author: Abigail Gage is the Veterans Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She recently received a Masters of Arts from the Johns-Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Abigail is also a Major in the Maryland Army National Guard. Prior to SAIS, she worked for the House Armed Services Committee as a research assistant and served on active duty in Iraq and Germany. Abigail earned her Bachelors in Anthropology and Archaeology from Washington and Lee University.