SEOUL – Kim Jong Un is ready for war-war but he is also ready to jaw-jaw.
In a signal long-awaited by pro-engagers in Seoul and Washington, the North Korean leader stated on Friday that he was ready to talk to the Biden administration, which took office on January 20.
Due to the time difference, there has been no US response as yet. However, the US special envoy on North Korea, Sung Kim, is due in Seoul this weekend, where he is expected to meet his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.
Kim had previously smashed precedent when he became the first North Korean leader to have a summit with a sitting American leader, former President Donald Trump, in 2018. That initiative, however, failed to secure a breakthrough in bilateral relations.
But while Friday’s statement may re-open the door to North Korean-US dialogue, it does not necessarily mean a headline-grabbing summit is imminent.
During his meeting last month with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a keen proponent of engagement, Biden agreed to take a diplomatic approach toward North Korea, even holding out the possibility of having a summit with Kim. But he has also made clear he expects groundwork to be laid before any such meeting transpires.
And in the ever-complex mating dance between Pyongyang and Washington, obstacles stand in the way even of working-level delegations coming face to face, said one expert who has personal experience in engaging the North Korean leadership.
Kim gives green light
“The General Secretary stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation,” North Korea’s Central News Agency reported in a statement monitored by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency Friday.
“General Secretary” of the Korean Workers Party is Kim’s preferred title, superseding his former brand – Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Kim was speaking at a meeting of the party’s Central Committee.
But this being North Korea, Kim’s olive branch was tempered with some more martial messaging.
The country should “especially” be “fully prepared for confrontation in order to protect the dignity of our state and its interests for independent development and to reliably guarantee the peaceful environment and the security of our state,” the KCNA statement continued.
Experts had expected North Korea to send some kind of signal after assessing the Biden administration’s policy review. That review was completed in May and was followed by the South Korean-US Presidential summit in Washington last month.
The Pyongyang-Washington ‘Catch 22’
Moon Chung-in, an academic who has advised three South Korean presidents on North Korean policy and has attended all inter-Korean summits, was cautiously optimistic but still aware of the difficulties ahead.
Dissecting the differing reactions to Kim’s statement, Moon told Asia Times: “US media has focused on the confrontation, but in South Korea, the focus has been more on the dialogue.”
If Kim’s emphasis at the meeting had been on confrontation, Moon said, a critique of the US would have been included in the reported statement, but was not.
All analyses of the highly secretive state suggest that North Korea is facing major economic difficulties, as a Covid-inspired border closure and resultant trade lockdown compounds difficulties imposed by international sanctions.
Kim has also admitted that his country faces a “tense” food situation – always a specter hanging over a nation that is climatically and topographically unsuited for agriculture, and which operates largely outside the global trade system.
This logic dictates that the country would be willing to talk. Yet the path ahead is unclear.
Though there are multiple communications channels ready for use, including an internet link between Pyongyang and Washington and a US-based North Korean diplomatic delegation to the UN in New York, a “who jumps first” conundrum exists.
“Given the current difficulties in North Korea, it is likely North Korea will want some kind of dialogue, but if their working-level attend a dialog and don’t go back to Pyongyang without tangible outcomes, it will be disastrous for the delegation,” Moon, who heads the Sejong Institute think tank, said. “And unless North Korea shows up, the US can’t offer anything. It’s a Catch 22.”
There are plentiful offers the US could make, ranging from offering humanitarian aid or vaccination assistance to halting or downscaling joint war games with South Korean forces scheduled for August.
So far, however, all indications are that the summer drills will go ahead, suggesting stormy relations upcoming unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough prior.
But even in Pyongyang, there are reasons why that may not happen.
Kim-Trump … Kim-Biden?
Though he is doubtlessly an all-powerful leader, there are both credibility risks and policy constraints for Kim to re-engage the US.
Kim invested massive personal face and political capital in engaging and striking up a surprise bromance with former president Trump. However, that avenue eventually led nowhere.
After a promising first summit in Singapore in 2018, things fell apart at a second held in Hanoi in 2019.
Kim offered a small deal under which Pyongyang would give up its central nuclear facility in return for some sanctions waivers. However Trump, following the advice of hardcore advisor John Bolton, demanded a “grand bargain” under which North Korea would declare and abandon all its weapons of mass destruction.
Since then, relations have gradually fallen back into a freeze, with policy on both sides in limbo. Amid this situation, Kim’s high-profile younger sister, Yo Jong, has switched her public stance from special envoy to attack dog.
Now, the lesson of “once bitten, twice shy” is one that both Kim and his minions must heed before deciding to engage Biden.
“He has to protect the image of the infallibility of the leader,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul think tank the Asan Institute. “He made a mistake [with Trump], he overpromised and clearly it did not work out, so he conducted a purge, blaming others.”
Moreover, given the enormous quantities of blood, sweat, toil and tears invested in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, there are huge – if not insurmountable – barriers to giving them up.
“It is not easy for him to offer a major denuclearization deal to the US,” said Go. “That is a constraint on him.”
All this suggests that Kim is far less likely to engage as enthusiastically with Biden as he did with his predecessor.
“They took a risk with Trump, as he was different,” Go said, a reference to the former president’s lack of prior political experience and his unconventional approach to diplomacy.
“Biden is not acting like Trump, he is not promising anything, and he clearly does not like Kim,” Go added. “I think that has adjusted Kim’s expectations already.”