Kim Jong Un supposedly said he’s ready to give up his nukes for security guarantees. Really? Could be a real breakthrough—or deception or delusion by the government in Seoul.
The American leader was undoubtedly referring to the need to keep an eye on the North Koreans. The Koreans to watch, however, are the ones from the South.
“The North side clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and said it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea removed,” said Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security director, in a statement released Tuesday by Seoul’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency.
Moreover, Chung, who headed a 10-member delegation that met Kim Jong Un during a two-day trip to Pyongyang, also announced that “while dialogue is continuing,” the North “will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”
Chung’s assertions were startling. Many times, Kim Jong Un has made it clear he will never surrender his most destructive weapons. In fact, he wrote the possession of nukes into the constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 2012. Kim has also made the nuke arsenal a basis of the regime’s legitimacy by incorporating it as one of the two legs of his signature byungjin line.
Countless commentators, therefore, have said Kim would never give up his nuclear deterrent.
So why did he make such a bold overture now?
It is possible that U.N. and U.S. sanctions have forced the Kimster to come to the realization he has no choice but to give up his arsenal. (One sign of desperation: reports that North Korea is sending messages to defectors who have fled the abhorrent regime to demand cash to keep relatives still in the North safe.) A North Korean default on payments for satellite time means that air controllers at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport have to telephone the South’s Incheon airport to communicate plane movements. Pyongyang’s foreign exchange reserves may run out by October.
Or perhaps Kim is engaging in more duplicitous talk, starting another round of fruitless negotiations so that he will have a little more time to complete weapons development. Soon—CIA Director Mike Pompeo in January said just a “handful of months”—he will be able to reach the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped missile.
Or maybe all these statements conveyed by Chung, although nominally about denuclearization, were not directed at the U.S. It is possible that Kim Jong Un, a master of propaganda, thought they would resonate with South Korean voters.
South Koreans head to the polls on June 13 in local elections that will also fill vacant seats in the National Assembly. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea is only a minority party in the legislature—121 seats in the 300-seat body—and its prospects would be helped by a general thaw on the peninsula. Moon last year ran on improving relations with Pyongyang, and Kim Jong Un knows his South Korean counterpart, if given a free hand, will send cash northward.
And Pyongyang made another statement it knows would play well with the South Korean electorate. Chung said after meeting Kim: “The North promised not to use not only nuclear weapons but also conventional weapons against the South.”
The last promise is tantamount to a pledge not to attack and could convince some in the South that the time had come to engage Kim with, among other things, money.
Of course, no one should believe such a no-attack promise as long as the Korean People’s Army remains forward-deployed along the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas.
And there is one more possibility to consider. Maybe Kim never said the things Chung announced or Chung was exaggerating. We have not heard the North Koreans say the things ascribed to them, and we know they are not bashful in speaking for themselves. Chung could have been promoting what his boss, President Moon, would like the world to believe.
Moon believes dialogue is the way to heal the seven-decade-old division of the Korean nation and keep peace on the peninsula. He does not see Kim as a dangerous tyrant. On the contrary, Kim, in Moon’s eyes, is merely another Korean leader. It is, therefore, in Moon’s interest to make Kim appear ready to make peace.
Therefore, Moon, by making the North Koreans look ready to change long-held policies, could be trying to force Washington to reciprocate to a North Korean overture. It is even possible the South Korean leader is trying to entice his North Korean counterparts to the bargaining table.
Something’s up, and the U.S. should be wary. CNN on Wednesday ran an analysis carrying the headline, “Trump Teeters on the Edge of a Familiar North Korean Trap.” I’m sure there has been a trap set for Washington, but perhaps it was laid by the South Koreans.
In any event, it is especially appropriate for Trump to employ his signature line: “We’ll see.”
As Trump says, the world is in fact watching. At the moment, most everyone is watching the North Korean supremo, but maybe we should be paying more attention to the Korean leader from the South.