North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives field guidance at the 810 army unit’s salmon farms in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives field guidance at the 810 army unit’s salmon farms in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Underground nuclear tests. Purges of government elites via anti-aircraft guns. Operatic, multi-launch missile volleys. VX fratricide. Hostage diplomacy. The pace of North Korea’s outlaw behavior has taken on an almost rhythmic regularity. Pyongyang’s bellicosity seems to have shifted from a pattern of cyclical outrages to an ominous new era of almost concurrent and compounding provocations.

North Korea’s recent assaults on an array of longstanding UN Security Council resolutions — not to mention basic international norms of conduct — have been so dizzying in their frequency, the White House can’t seem to cobble together a response to one provocation fast enough before another supersedes it in the headlines. In short, Pyongyang appears to have maximized the opportunity afforded by the Trump administration’s initial foreign policy disarray, Seoul’s scandalized politics, and China’s self-interested passivity in the face of North Korea’s heedless quest to perfect its nuclear capability.

Pyongyang’s reunification endgame

Amidst North Korea’s latest expertly-manufactured turmoil and the international community’s Pavlovian condemnations, it is easy to lose sight of Pyongyang’s purported endgame: reunification of the two Koreas under its control and terms. While the extent to which the regime or its people, including its black and gray market generation, still genuinely subscribes to this peninsula pipe dream is debatable, in an ideologically-driven, totalitarian society, such a consideration is ultimately irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that the North’s reunification fantasy is woven into the very fabric of its ideology, and is even codified in its constitution. In fact, the word “reunification” appears no less than six times (depending on translation) in just its preamble.

The North Korean constitution, of course, does not hold the pre-eminent position in the people’s consciousness that the country’s “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System” do, as these are the tenets every North Korean must memorize and apply to daily life. These 10 principles are tantamount to the Ten Commandments of the Kim Il Sung religion. And regardless of the luster of legality a constitution ostensibly confers, in the North Korean cult-state the leader is the law. Still, insofar as the preamble to the constitution can be read as a macro-ideological expression of how the country views itself and its destiny, it would not be a rhetorical stretch to conclude that, for the regime, reunification is a preoccupation.

It would also not be too presumptive a logical leap to draw a means-ends conclusion between Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuits and its One Korea dreams, especially given the deterrence redundancy that a nuclear arsenal represents. Nuclear missiles that put America and its East Asian allies within range certainly enhance a deterrence edifice against potential invasion, to say nothing of the defiant middle-finger imagery conjured from a North Korean ICBM test rocket rising from a launch pad.

If all Pyongyang sought was deterrence, however, it beggars belief to accept the notion that North Korea would spend billions of dollars over decades, engender unprecedented international isolation, allow itself to descend to pariah-nation status, and stoke the risk for regime-ending miscalculation all to acquire a bulwark against invasion it already enjoyed for more than six decades in the form of its massive conventional and non-nuclear WMD assets focused almost entirely on South Korea and Japan.

Indeed, notwithstanding Pyongyang’s own references to the contrary, the analogies drawn to the fate that befell Iraq and Libya are inapt, given the vast differences in troop discipline, focused military capability, and, most importantly, concentrated retaliatory proximity to alliance countries which have acted as checks on potential US pre-emption for more than 60 years. The same critique applies to the economic concessions some analysts think Kim Jong Un wants to acquire through nuclear blackmail. There are myriad less costly, less confrontational and more conventional paths the Kim regime could take that would have the international community throwing money at North Korea like bouquets onto a stage.

In the end, what really drives Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are the inward impulses of an ideological imperative to achieve and maintain nuclear parity — in capability, if not quantity — with the United States, its mortal enemy. In Kim Jong Un’s eyes, the ICBM represents the Holy Grail of domestic prestige and affirmation which he prizes over efforts to be seen as a respected power among nations.

Kim Jong Un’s daddy (and granddaddy) issues

If one read the preamble to North Korea’s latest constitution, which celebrates by way of perfumed hagiography the contributions of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to the country, it would not be hard to appreciate the pressure Kim the third must feel to solidify his legitimacy as his country’s young leader by building on the exploits of his grandfather and the achievements of his father. If Kim 1.0 created the country and Kim 2.0 solidified its standing as an impenetrable nuclear power, then it would be incumbent upon Kim 3.0 to bring it on home, as it were, by achieving his grandfather’s dream of unifying the two Koreas under Pyongyang’s rule, which would necessarily require kicking the US out of the peninsula.

What the ICBM trump card affords Kim Jong Un is the maximum nuclear leverage he may think he needs to finally bring the United States around to negotiations on a peace treaty which, outside of force, is the prerequisite to any reunification framework. Again, whether Kim actually believes he can realistically achieve a formal treaty is immaterial to the fact that a peace bargain has been talked about within the regime since the 1960s and actively pursued since the 1970s. Not coincidentally, Article 9 of North Korea’s revamped constitution, adopted in 1972, calls for “peaceful reunification.” Recent statements out of the North Korean foreign ministry and Pyongyang’s propaganda organ, the KCNA, continue to trumpet peace treaty negotiations that would follow cessation of US-South Korea joint military exercises and the suspension of the North’s nuclear development activities.

Freeze for freeze

The opportunity this presents to the United States, if it allows itself to think outside the box of muscle diplomacy, is a chance to probe whether Kim Jong Un is serious about halting further nuclear development and testing, in return for the temporary suspension of future joint military drills and a promise to begin laying the groundwork for peace talks. The US and South Korea canceled Team Spirit exercises for two years in 1994 to incentivize North Korea’s adherence to the Agreed Framework. That effort bought us an eight-year hiatus on Pyongyang’s plutonium program.

The US-ROK alliance forces are the best-equipped, most highly-trained in the world, and would not suffer any appreciable readiness degradation by suspending exercises during any confidence-building period with North Korea. The disproportionate benefit we would hopefully derive is a respite from Pyongyang’s relentless march towards a comprehensive nuclear weapons delivery capability (albeit the devil will continue to be in the details of a verification regime). The time afforded us will also allow for the development of other potential policy options to extend any nuclear testing embargo, while we work to effect regime corrosion through such soft tactics as information infiltration into North Korea.

Importantly, pursuing the freeze-for-freeze gambit does not mean relenting on sanctions. Together with tactical vigilance such as the ongoing Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) deployment, the US should continue to maintain a robust tripartite foreign policy approach towards North Korea. Employment of the full panoply of available diplomatic levers should never be a zero-sum game.

Nuclear game theory

As a first step, the US must be practical — not ideological — about what it can achieve in the short and medium term, given the current nuclear threat. De-nuclearization should remain the West’s long-term goal, but we are deluding ourselves to think the North would ever accept such a premise to overhang any future détente discussions. Erasing “communism” from the North Korean constitution, as the regime did in 2009, is far less conspicuous and more palatable than having to remove the reference to a “nuclear-armed state” which started proudly appearing in the preamble to the North’s constitution beginning in 2012.

If the ICBM scenario is as dire as analysts paint it, does not working towards an interim moratorium on the North’s nuclear testing make simple, logical sense? Any de-nuclearization regime necessarily depends, first, on an initial, verifiable moratorium on further nuclear development activities. This two-step model is exactly what was adopted under, for example, the 1994 Agreed Framework, though the process never reached the dismantling phase over cross-accusations of bad faith regarding such issues as the progress on the provision of light-water reactor technology to the North.

In other words, an initial freeze will always be a practical precondition for de-nuclearization. North Korea refuses to discuss the latter but has offered the former. Since achieving the latter is contingent on first obtaining the former, why would we not, therefore, see if we could establish the former now, in the hope of eventually attaining the latter in the future? Rather than recklessly swinging for an impossible de-nuclearization par 5 hole-in-one and ending up in the water, we should proceed incrementally, with methodical and strategic focus, towards the green.

To naysayers who fear a devolution to the Ferris wheel interminability of the Six-Party talks, the sordid, blank-check diplomacy of Kim Dae-jung’s discredited Sunshine Policy, or the feckless, picnic-on-the-DMZ trustpolitik approach that the impeached South Korean former president Park Geun-hye appropriately abandoned, they should be reminded that the dynamics this time have the United States firmly occupying the negotiation high ground. After all, we will simply be returning the phone call, so to speak, that North Korea has repeatedly placed offering a freeze on further nuclear testing in return for the suspension of the joint military exercises and moves towards peace talks. By setting those terms, Pyongyang has also unwittingly circumscribed the barter buffet it usually orders up. Freeze for freeze. Full stop. The moment North Korea starts laying out additional conditions is the moment the US would walk out.

The history of diplomacy was born in the graveyard of good intentions. But, as with anything worth achieving, nothing ventured, nothing gained. As for those critics who will protest that any freeze deal would be tantamount to recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state, they are five years too late to the debate. The stillborn “Leap Day” deal from 2012 was essentially a freeze agreement only, in that its terms were not linked — at least not directly — to any commitment regarding de-nuclearization, in contrast to the Agreed Framework and the 2005 Joint Statement.

There is no question that North Korea has shown itself to be obstinate and duplicitous in past negotiations. However, the conundrum that those advocating a no-talk-sanctions-only approach also face is how they could be assured that Pyongyang’s mendacity would not infect any future negotiations they predict would come about once the regime buckles under the weight of sanctions and begs to return to de-nuclearization talks. Also, how long can we afford to only play sanctions whack-a-mole with North Korea’s shape-shifting illicit network, while Pyongyang sprints to the ICBM finish line? If we were able to choose our negotiating partners, there would be no need for diplomacy.

Earth to Pyongyang

Even assuming we arrive at a mutual freeze agreement, working towards a viable peace treaty would be the diplomatic equivalent of trying to climb Mount Everest starting, not from base camp, but at sea level. While the onus to demonstrate good faith would rest squarely with Pyongyang, excruciatingly difficult concessions would have to be made by all sides. It would likely be a process measured in years, rather than months.

As a purely existential matter, despite whatever Pyongyang may think, any workable peace treaty — and post-treaty confederation (as the North has previously proposed) — would be the death knell for the North Korean system. Gone would be any reason to maintain the Songun (military-first) doctrine which has effectively served as the regime’s source of legitimacy, despite Kim Jong Un’s effort to fashion his own ruling doctrine of Byungjin (parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy). There would also be no justification for maintaining the North Korean people’s isolation from the world and, especially, South Korea. North Koreans would demand to enjoy the spoils of a long-deferred peace dividend. Pyongyang’s totalitarian control would quickly unravel.

When Kim Il Sung made his ominous prophecy in 1973 that South Korea would be finished under a confederation, it was at a time when the North and South economies were at roughly GDP parity and South Korean society was chafing with civil discontent under the authoritarian repression of military dictatorship. Some economists have even argued that the North was actually the more developed and prosperous of the two Koreas, up to that period, given its abundant mineral resources and the industrial infrastructure built by Japan during the colonial period before World War II. Today, South Korea’s economic power completely eclipses the North’s dozens of times over. South Korea’s annual GDP expansion, alone, is comparable with the entirety of the North Korean economy.

Since the early 1970s, the assumptions underlying Kim Il Sung’s prediction have disappeared. He may as well have been speaking from another planet. It is not clear that Kim Jong Un and his propaganda coterie got the memo on the current geopolitical realities on the peninsula, as they keep beating the peace treaty drum. But, the reverse-Trojan Horse scenario they are inviting would be well worth watching.

Kim Jong unconstrained

Beyond the urgency presented by North Korea’s nuclear push, Kim Jong Un’s megalomaniacal impulsivity is a cause for heightened concern. Unlike his comparatively more measured father, Kim does not appear to have a stop button for his increasing bellicosity. There appear to be fewer, if any, off-ramps on the Kim Jong Un Provocation Highway. What should keep the West up at night is the fact that no one to this day knows exactly what Kim may be capable of, if left unconstrained. His unbridled, exponential pursuit of a comprehensive nuclear capability also has a patina of fatalism about it that is deeply troubling.

Back in early 2013, I wrote the following about my view of Kim Jong Un:

“What the West must come to terms with is a new paradigm of provocation foisted upon the world by Kim Jong Un. He quite literally sees himself as the last Kim in a three-man historical relay in which the honor of the Korean people will finally rise like a Phoenix from the nuclear ashes of America and South Korea’s defeat. Any casual observer who has sampled the apocalyptic propaganda of a burning Manhattan that North Korea, itself, recently posted on YouTube can see the vanity and fatalistic narcissism that fuels the young general’s worldview, a vision further hazed by the apparently endless Cognac and wine-drenched parties the leader and his tight-knit command cabal expertly stage for visiting dignitaries such as the hapless Dennis Rodman.

“This 28-year-old child-general fancies himself to be a latter-day Korean Ulysses in a global cowboys and Indians game with the United States of America, except he will come home to his people triumphant. The world needs to finally face what is a new and genuine threat from the East. This new leader not only has his finger on the nuclear button. He appears to be itching to press it. This is the new geopolitical reality the free world must confront.”

What I was attempting to convey was not some apocalyptic notion that Kim was on a nihilistic quest to acquire nuclear weapons so that he could blithely unleash Armageddon on the world, but that he seemed to suffer from a deficiency of prudence that lent itself to the potential for paranoid and catastrophic miscalculation, were he to feel threatened.

For this, if for no other, reason, we must try and get Kim to take his foot off the nuclear accelerator. But, first, we have to get in the car.

Edward Oh

Edward Oh is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC. He has published articles on the role of North Korea's ideology and propaganda in its nuclear program.