North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s remarks at the Workers’ Party meeting late last year revealed his real intention behind the regime’s nuclear programs.
Kim vowed to lift his self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. He said the world will witness a new strategic weapon, and that his country “will shift to a shocking actual action.” He has apparently changed his country’s course from negotiation to confrontation.
While shifting to confrontation, however, Kim did not entirely rule out the possibility of negotiations with the US. For the shift, he attached a precondition: “If the US keeps pursuing a policy hostile to North Korea to the end.” But he should know that as long as he tries to keep his grip on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the door to negotiations can hardly be opened. Pyongyang has used negotiations to buy time for arms development, get something from the US or make the US and South Korea lower their guard.
Though Kim has not extinguished the embers of negotiations entirely, on the whole, he has hardened his stance. South Korea needs to change its own position by way of response. From the beginning, Kim had no desire to denuclearize his country. He just pretended to in the hope of reduced sanctions.
The chance of the North dismantling its nuclear programs is near zero, considering it has endured severe hardships to develop them. It may be impossible to denuclearize the North completely and verifiably through negotiations.
If so, it may be wise to assume a nuclear-armed North Korea is a fact of life and focus on the management of the situation. The key to situation management is deterrence. Apart from a strong defense, a smart and shrewd diplomacy is also essential. Among others, the inter-Korean military agreement, which has weakened the South’s surveillance of the North, must be reviewed.
At the party meeting, Kim vowed to upgrade his country’s nuclear programs while developing its economy through its own efforts. But he should know it is impossible to rehabilitate the economy without sanctions relief. Kim must accept this reality and give up its brinkmanship.
Considering the US recently strengthened its surveillance of the North and prepared military options, North Korea is expected to concentrate on shaking the US-South Korea alliance, rather than provoking the US directly. This tactic will fail if dealt with sternly by a tight alliance and a strong deterrence.
Noticeable in Kim’s remarks is that there was not a single mention of the inter-Korean relationship. In 2019, he referred to “North-South relations”10 times in his New Year’s message.
Through his three summits with Kim last year, President Moon Jae-in worked hard to keep alive the peace process based on inter-Korean relations and US-North Korea negotiations, but his efforts were completely disregarded.
Kim’s total disregard of the South appears intentional, though. It seems to be a tacit pressure on the Moon administration to ease up on sanctions if it wants to improve relations with North Korea. But Pyongyang must know this is out of the question unless Washington changes its policy on sanctions.
The Moon administration must not go too far to get the peace process going. It has tried to appease the Kim regime, sometimes seeking exceptional sanctions relief to boost dialogue, but what it gained is not peace but Kim’s total disregard. When it comes to nuclear weapons and missiles, North Korea remains unchanged in essence.
The fact that the North is escalating threats shows that its economy is moaning owing to sanctions. North Korea was expected to launch an ICBM as a “Christmas gift” to the US, but it did not due to the heightened US surveillance and deterrence.
Sanctions must be maintained unless the North takes a sincere step to denuclearize, and the US-led alliance should remain tight.
Pyongyang should know it has nothing to gain from confrontation. The Seoul government should shelve its fruitless appeasement policy and focus on substantial measures to beef up deterrence.