GREENBELT, MARYLAND—Friday, Kim Jong Un meets Moon Jae-in in the much-anticipated inter-Korean summit, the first to be held in South Korea.
The two leaders may be up to no good when they sit down at Peace House in the Truce Village of Panmunjom, especially if they create the conditions for the unification of the two Koreas.
Kim’s mischief is well-known. He has devoted the first years of his rule—he came to power in December 2011 upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il—to the development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.
He has on occasion declared the effort “complete,” most recently last Saturday. “We no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying then.
There’s no mystery why the “nuclear test site in northern area” has been shuttered. Although some analysts, such as those at the oft-cited 38 North website, think the site is geologically stable, most believe the September 3 underground detonation of what was almost surely a thermonuclear device left Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri testing area unusable. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post even reports the test collapsed the mountain, leaving it in “fragile fragments.” Not even Kim wants to risk a radioactive cloud over all of North Korea and much of China.
It isn’t clear, however, why Kim made the other promises. Despite his most recent boast, he needs one more test, and it’s the one his foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, promised last September while visiting New York. Then, Ri said the North would detonate a thermonuclear device over the Pacific Ocean. Until the North makes good on that provocative vow, many will continue to doubt the regime has integrated all its capabilities to produce a workable weapon.
It’s possible Kim’s accelerated testing schedule—23 ballistic missile launches and one nuclear detonation last year—has left the regime low on cash. Chinese sources are reporting that his Office No. 39, the family slush fund, is running low, and South Korean reports suggest the North could deplete its foreign currency reserves by October.
Sanctions have severely crimped the flow of money to the regime, but it’s also possible that cash-flow problems had little to do with the timing of Saturday’s dramatic announcement. Because the announcement was made in the days preceding Kim’s two summits—one with Moon Jae-in and the other with President Donald Trump—the North Korean may have been hoping to influence the outcome of the discussions.
“Everyone gets excited when they announce testing moratoriums, so why wouldn’t they do that this time?” Bruce Bechtol, author of North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era, said to The Daily Beast. The Angelo State University professor also noted that the Kim family has often proclaimed testing moratoriums during talks, like they did in 2007.
Because Kim’s announcement was made on the eve of the meeting with Moon—instead of the days immediately preceding the expected Trump summit—Kim almost certainly had South Korea uppermost on his mind when promising the suspension of testing and the closing of the test site.
In fact, most of what Kim does is aimed at the Republic of Korea, the prosperous—and easily manipulated—democracy lying just south of the DMZ. At the core of the legitimacy of the Kim family is the promise to remove foreign troops from the Korean peninsula and reunify the Korean nation under its rule, “completing the juche revolution” as Lee Sung-Yoon of Tuft’s Fletcher School described it in comments to The Daily Beast. Kim, Lee says, would award himself the title of “Great Liberator of the Sacred Fatherland” if successful.
And Moon Jae-in, Kim surely thinks, is useful to the attainment of his goals. For one thing, the South Korean leader seems to be a mischief-maker in Seoul, probably sharing the objective of ending the South’s military alliance with the U.S. Moon, unfortunately, has tried to both undermine support for the unified command structure at the heart of the alliance and restrict missile-defense systems protecting alliance forces. Furthermore, last October his government made, in what has become known as the Three Nos, significant defense commitments to China with little or no consultation with Washington.
Most significantly, Moon shares Kim’s hope for a formal unification of the two Koreas, and both Korean leaders now seek a loose confederation as a way station to complete union. In this regard, Moon has been trying to amend the South Korean constitution to make possible the formation of that confederation with Kim’s horrific Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Tara O of Pacific Forum CSIS tells the Daily Beast that resistance from the opposition Liberty Korea Party forced Moon Tuesday to announce the delay of his constitutional reform plans until after the Kim summit.
And Moon, reacting to public opinion, has had to put on hold unification talk. In comments to Reuters, Moon Chung-in, special national security adviser to President Moon, said the matter will not be a major topic of conversation on Friday.
But unification is obviously on Moon’s mind. The dessert South Korea is serving at the summit is a mango mousse adorned with a map of a unified Korea, resembling the blue-on-white “Unification Flag” that the unified Korean team carried at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
And the topics at the summit are unification-themed. Take the proposed peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. The treaty is on the agenda because it is obviously a pre-condition to President Moon’s cherished goal. As Moon Chung-in explained, “If there is no peace, there is no unification.”
The risk for South Koreans is that President Moon, who has surrounded himself with pro-Pyongyang senior advisers, will try to force a union with the Kim regime on terms that undermine South Korea. That will be difficult to do now because the South is still a democracy protected by its constitution. Yet Moon’s plan to substantially amend the constitution puts the South’s liberal democratic form of government at risk.
There are now two Korean leaders who seem, at least in broad outline, to share goals, and they now are working with common purpose. The inclusion of unification-themed items on Friday’s agenda, therefore, appears ominous.
So it is in this context that Kim’s Saturday’s announcements could be a tactic to accomplish what many would find inconceivable, North Korea’s takeover of the South Korean state, victory in the juche revolution.