North Korea's young and brutal dictator Kim Jong Un has gone from one of the world's top pariahs to a man in demand who is stepping out onto the world stage and getting rockstar-like attention in doing so. The signs of this ascension were evident when Kim's sister visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics. The press fawned over her like an exotic and wondrous creature from a mythical land. Then, following his unprecedented meeting with high-ranking South Korean officials, through which he sent a message to President Trump that he wanted to meet, the stage was set for the rise of Kim—even if it only turns out to be a temporary phenomenon.
Since then Kim Jong Un has been meeting with other international leaders and even left his 'hermit kingdom' for the first time in nearly seven years—since becoming premier—for a meeting with Xi Jinping, President of China, North Korea's closest ally. Kim is now set to receive Jinping in Pyongyang in the near future, a historic visit that will only elevate the 'young general's' profile as viewed through a global lens.
Many claim all this is a horrendous abomination, that no leader of a country with a human rights record like North Korea should be accepted by the world community, let alone meet directly with the leader of the free world. In a perfect world that may be so, but ours is far from it. Injecting Kim into the world community—showing him what is possible if he has the courage to truly change the behavior of his military state—will be absolutely key in realizing any tangible change.
The fact of the matter is that Kim Jong Un is the ruler of North Korea. He has consolidated power with an iron machine gun trigger finger, and at this point, the chances of him being overthrown by parties that are more moderate are next to nil. So you deal with him or you accept the status quo and try to contain him, or even worse, you spill a river of blood and smelt endless treasure by removing him from power militarily.
Kim's new tone came to a point this week after it was learned that CIA Chief and Trump's next Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to Pyongyang to meet with Kim and his aides. Not too long after that news broke, North Korea state media released a statement saying that the country would not test any more missiles and would be shutting down its underground Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
The mainstream media ran this story as if it was nearly a statement of surrender of North Korea's nuclear capabilities, but in reality, it was quite the opposite. Although the statement may be a good indication of a more stable situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the region as a whole after a year of drastically-escalating tension, it is by no means a sign that Pyongyang will be turning over their nuclear weapons and dismantling its ballistic missiles anytime soon.
The statement, which is free of the usual anti-American bluster, reads:
If anything this clearly says that the regime sees that it has accomplished its nuclear deterrent aims and will retain its arsenal and delivery systems while abstaining from further live testing. In addition, this does not mean it will end development of its delivery systems or its nuclear warheads.
North Korea's nuclear test site is known to be in a very unstable condition and detonations there have likely caused geological issues in the region which it is located. By some accounts, the site is totally unusable after the test of a far more powerful nuclear device than the ones tested prior, which by most accounts was a thermonuclear weapon. As such, North Korea is giving nothing up here. It is simply reframing the abandonment of the test site as some sort of a give prior to the Kim-Trump summit. Additionally, North Korea is likely to the point where computer modeling can provide the information they need to improve their warhead designs' reliability and increase their yields. Like North Korea, Pakistan and India each tested six devices before they could rely fully on computer modelling for further development.
As for its missile programs, nothing in the statement even brushes on the possibility that they will destroy existing delivery systems or stop the development of existing or even new ones, they simply aren't going to test them for the time being. Considering the increasingly perilous state of the North Korean economy, one in which exports and imports have been drastically curtailed, there probably isn't the funds available to execute a series of new test launches even if they wanted to.
The statement even tries to assuage fears that they could sell their nuclear technology to anyone with cold hard cash. This certainly wouldn't be an issue for a country that is planning on denuclearizing, would it?
So what North Korea seems to be proposing here is a nuclear and missile test freeze, but beyond that, it can still keep and develop its nuclear arsenal while it joins the world community in hoping for a day in which nuclear weapons are no longer needed. Sounds beautiful, doesn't it?
But just because North Korea isn't unilaterally disposing of its nukes and missiles doesn't mean this statement isn't a good step in the right direction. If this is what Pyongyang is proposing, it may be possible to get a hard nuclear and missile freeze put into place—one based on third-party verification and strict controls. As we have said for years now, this would be a big win, especially considering they still have yet to fully prove their ability to deliver a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile over long distances.
Some will say North Korea has made agreements and broken them before. That's true, but the immediate threat of snap-back sanctions and a preemptive strike is a powerful tool now on the table. Additionally, Kim Jong Un is not his father or his grandfather. He has been remarkably open about his intentions and capabilities, and if he gets a taste of even granular respect on the world stage, it could lead to real reforms. Also keep in mind the drastically different relationship the North has with the South now after just a couple months of talks. For Kim to backtrack on all this just to test nuclear bombs and launch rockets, while also sending his economy back into a death spiral, seems totally illogical.
The timing of the announcement leading up to the summit between Kim and Trump is also a big tell. It has been repeatedly reported that North Korea is indeed willing to talk about denuclearization during the historic meeting. Once again, too many this sounds like an indication of capitulation, but really it isn't at all.
North Korea has said they support a denuclearized Korean Peninsula even during the height of the standoff with the United States. And of course, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means totally different things to different parties. If you're North Korea it means the U.S. pulling back its nuclear umbrella from the region as well as removing its own physical warheads from the landmass. If you're National Security Advisor John Bolton it means North Korea telling the U.S. what ports and airports it can load-up and totally remove the country's nuclear arsenal and program materials within a week. Watch for yourself starting at about the 3:00 minute mark:
Even Mike Pompeo, who was just in Pyongyang meeting with Kim, stated the following at the 2017 Aspen Security Forum:
It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula to get those weapons off that but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today. So from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two, right, separate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.
Trump himself has taken North Korea's latest statement as a plan to denuclearize, which as we clearly point out, is far from it, posting the following tweet yesterday:
I have applauded the President's willingness to seize the opportunity and talk directly with Kim Jong Un as he had promised before making it to the Oval Office—something I have stated was absolutely necessary for years now. But if outright capitulation to Washington's demands is the only acceptable outcome to these talks they could result in an even more perilous situation than we were in before the recent detente began. And it's not as if a path to achieving that grand goal couldn't be part of a larger more dynamic strategy, but that would mean near instant denuclearization would have to be put aside for more plausible but still major shorter-term diplomatic gains.
For instance, a deal could include the lifting of some sanctions for a testing and production freeze of both Kim's nuclear and ballistic missile programs that would have to be continuously verified by international inspectors. If North Korea violates the terms of the agreement the sanctions snap back in place with full force along will the military pressure campaign—or worse.
Under such a deal, after a certain period of time, say 24 months, the North Koreans will be presented with a highly attractive aid and diplomatic package that will open North Korea up more to the outside world and make the country far more stable economically if it is willing to give up its nuclear arsenal and meet basic humanitarian requirements. This would be a grand package that could be tied with a major de-escalation of the standoff between North and South and even a non-aggression deal with the United States.
The idea here is that after 24 months of being lauded on the world stage and realizing the potential his country has in terms of trade, as well as the possibility of finally dissipating the cloud of paranoia the regime has been under for decades as it has feared a decapitation strike or an apocalyptic war, Kim would be far more likely to consider taking such a deal. The fact that many parties would be willing to help North Korea become a more successful and peaceful state directly would also be a huge selling point.
This is just one example of how denuclearization could occur, but it won't happen overnight. And for those who say it will never work because the bitter hatred and perpetual state of war will never end, there are plenty of examples around the globe that say otherwise.
So the fact that Kim's star is rising on the world stage, and he seems to really like this fact, is a good development that can be readily exploited. In essence, his increasing connection with the greater world community is the most probable catalyst that could bring about a major change on the Korean Peninsula. This critical observation needs to be carefully factored into the aims of Trump-Kim summit.
By providing him a series of stepping stones where his ego won't be obliterated in the process of stepping away from his nuclear stockpile, it may actually happen. He can first claim a strategic win for his people, saying his goals of achieving a nuclear deterrent are achieved, and then once trust is built with external parties, he can be offered an incredibly lucrative opportunity to usher his people into a new age.
If what equates to a demand made under threat to immediately surrender the regime's most prized insurance policy—something that would be an unthinkably embarrassing and costly loss for Kim Jong Un—is the only acceptable outcome for the White House, the summit is more likely to be a squandered opportunity that will end in disaster than any type of success. And the world community, including China and even South Korea, that are already taking a higher view of Kim as a leader, could turn away from the U.S. for walking away from a far more realistic deal that still could be considered a monumental leap in the right direction—one that could at the very least avoid a massive war the likes of which the world hasn't seen for a very long time.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com