It may be a brand new day on the Korean peninsula. For the first time in decades, the Kim regime in North Korea has signaled a willingness to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons — in exchange for a settlement of the 1950-53 Korean War. The move comes immediately after a South Korean delegation met with Kim Jong-un, but also after a year of stepped-up military pressure from Donald Trump:
North Korea is willing to hold talks with the United States on denuclearization and will suspend nuclear tests while those talks are underway, South Korea said Tuesday after a delegation returned from a meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Kim has also agreed to hold a landmark summit meeting with South Korea’s president next month, a senior South Korean official added.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s presidential national security director, said the two Koreas agreed to hold just their third summit at a tense border village in late April. He also said the leaders will establish a “hotline” communication channel to lower military tensions, and would speak together before the planned summit.
“North Korea made clear its willingness to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and the fact there is no reason for it to have a nuclear program if military threats against the North are resolved and its regime is secure,” Chung told a media briefing.
Trump offered a cryptic response:
This appears to meet Trump’s demand for denuclearization as a topic for any direct talks, as well as the US demand for a halt in nuclear and missile tests. In fact, it looks like a complete concession — so much so that one has to wonder what the South Koreans said to Kim while meeting with him. It had to be relatively friendly, as the two nations agreed to a summit meeting between Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, but it also suggests that Kim now understands he’s played out the string as far as it will go without disastrous military action.
Or perhaps the last set of sanctions bit hard enough to force Kim’s hand. When Trump first announced the sanctions, Pyongyang’s official media announced that it might be two centuries before the regime would deign to talk with Washington. That changed 48 hours later when North Korea suggested talks that excluded denuclearization. Despite some pressure from Seoul, Trump refused, saying that denuclearization had to be on the table. One week later, it appears that Kim has folded.
The remaining question will be what happens to Kim in this process, assuming he’s serious and wants to put an end to his country’s isolation. His family built a Stalinist police state on the premise that the US was about to destroy them at any moment. That kind of existential fear is necessary to maintain a police state; without an external threat, people won’t starve for a Dear Leader. A small breeze of freedom can be a dangerous and destabilizing influence, and it’s usually the regime’s mid-level figures that go up against the wall first, either from the bottom up as the people rebel or from the top down as the regime struggles to survive. Kim himself has brutally dealt with members of his own family in his thirst for power and survival, so he’s not above being targeted in an uprising — and he knows it.
With that in mind, expect Moon to go a long way to keeping Kim comfortable through any process of denuclearization. The last thing Seoul needs is rapid disintegration of authority above the 38th Parallel. They will want to keep things calm and quiet for as long as possible, as will Washington for at least as long as it takes to dismantle the nuclear and chemical weapons programs. Assuming, again, that Kim is actually on the level.
Update: Like I said, this assumes he’s serious. There’s a track record on seriousness from Pyongyang, and it ain’t good:
For realsies this time. Not even joking. pic.twitter.com/4zZFVG4MFd
— Noam Blum (@neontaster) March 6, 2018
Trump has often complained about dealmaking by his predecessors and boasted of his superior negotiation skills. Here’s a good opportunity to prove it.