What pushed NK to form conciliatory mood?

By Ock Hyun-ju

Behind a sudden change in Kim Jong-un’s posture is a maximum pressure campaign, a looming possibility of Washington’s use of a military option and its confidence to deter the US, experts say

  • Published : Mar 9, 2018 - 17:00
  • Updated : Mar 9, 2018 - 18:38
With US President Donald Trump appearing ready to engage with North Korea, questions are rising over what prompted the North Korean leader to offer conditions sufficient to warrant such a reaction from the US leader.

On Friday, the White House confirmed that Trump will meet North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un by May to achieve denuclearization, suggesting that Seoul’s envoys conveyed conditions satisfactory to the US leader.

Trump, who once called Kim a “little rocket man” and threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the isolated country, has maintained that dialogue with North Korea is only possible when the reclusive regime shows serious intent for denuclearization. North Korea appears to have met the preconditions now.

While details remain undisclosed, there are speculations that Trump accepted North Korea’s proposal for talks in return for its promise to stop developing its intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland or to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities in his country to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs in a verifiable way.

For what many see as a historic breakthrough to tackling the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his top security advisor Chung Eui-yong have praised Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.

Experts, however, say that a number of factors -- including pressure from the US -- are at play, or it is a scenario North Korea has wanted to play all along.

Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said there are “combined factors” behind the dramatic shift in North Korea’s posture.

“This is the first time comprehensive economic sanctions, ‘maximum pressure’ have been applied to North Korea, evidence suggests it is disrupting his economy and affecting the elite that is his base of support,” he said. 

“Kim’s 25 missile tests and 3 nuclear tests have given him more confidence he can deter the US; Trump’s erratic, ‘madman’ demeanor has struck fear into Kim that Trump might actually attack.“

There are signs that multilayered sanctions against North Korea started to cause damage to its economy.

Lee Suk, a senior researcher at the Korea Development Institute, said in a report published on North Korea’s economy that North Korea’s industrial activities, agricultural production, trade are taking a hit from the international sanctions.

Its exports to China, its biggest trade partner, have dropped for 10 months straight between March and December last year, according to the report. 

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-in. (Korean Central News Agency)

After the United Nations Security Council passed the 2375 resolution in September last year and China joined the sanctions regime, it saw a stiffer decease in its exports to China by up to 83 percent between October and December, the report said.

The United Nations Security Council first passed Resolution 1718 condemning the country’s first nuclear test and imposed sanctions on the communist state, including the supply of heavy weaponry, missile technology and material.

But in the wake of a series of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, the UNSC began to target the overall economy of North Korea. The UNSC adopted the sanctions resolution 2375 after the North’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, aiming to slash North Korea‘s oil imports by 30 percent and ban exports of North Korean textiles.  In December 2017, UNSC passed Resolution 2397 imposing restrictions on oil imports, as well as metal, agricultural and labor exports.

Others say it is too early to tell whether sanctions are actually biting.

“I think sanctions started to affect North Korea’s economy, but it remains to be seen how much of a toll the sanctions are taking,” Lim Kang-taeg, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “North Korea‘s imports and exports cannot help but decease this year.”

“Given the North Korean regime’s system and pattern of decisions made so far, economic problems are not its main concerns. It may see it as the right time to talk to the US to get a security guarantee it wants, with the US increasingly considering a military option.”

The Kim Jong-un regime spent much of last year carrying out nuclear and missile provocations, which deteriorated tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

In response, the US stepped up the pressure saying “all options are on the table.” There were speculations that the Trump administration is seriously considering a limited strike on North Korea to send a message that provocations would not be tolerated, though it has said it prefers a diplomatic option.

The situation on the peninsula took a dramatic turn in January, following Kim’s New Year speech, in which he offered to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and improve inter-Korean ties.

Building on the Olympics detente, Kim is now reaching out to the US, saying he is ready to bargain away the nuclear and missile weapons programs.

While Seoul stresses the positive aspects of the developments, some say Kim’s actions are nothing unexpected and have been part of the young leader’s strategy all along, as the North now holds a powerful bargaining chip -- nuclear weapons programs he declared had been completed in November last year.

“Things are playing out as North Korea has planned, according to his own timeline. It has its own schedule that it wanted to become a military power and then move on to become an economic power. It is about time for North Korea to come to a negotiating table,” said Cho Sung-ryeol, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy.

“The maximum pressure campaign might have accelerated the implementation of North Korea‘s strategy, but mainly it is confidence that it now has a nuclear weapons programs completed.”

Victor Cha, a former White House official, said in an article published by the CSIS that North Korea’s diplomatic overtures must be viewed in the context of its overall byungjin strategy -- which sees national strategic objectives as defined by the development of nuclear weapons and economic development, not a tradeoff of one for the other.

“Thus, Pyongyang’s overtures may not represent a watershed change in strategy, but a tactical shift, building on the platform of nuclear weapons to seek economic benefits from the outside world,” Cha wrote.

Another factor may be China, another expert said.

“I think China also played a role in leading Kim to a negotiating table,” said Park Won-gon, professor at Handong University. “China has joined the sanctions regime against North Korea and has warned that it cannot protect North Korea anymore as long as it continues to make nuclear and missile provocations.”

China never took the ultimate step of stopping oil from flowing into North Korea, keeping the regime afloat, but Park said, “For North Korea, it cannot rely solely on China anymore.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (