North Korean head Kim Jong Un has signaled his intentions to improve ties with both South Korea and the US. The nation has admitted that it was willing to denuclearize after a year of engaging in aggressive rhetoric. Why has the leader changed his tune?
The Korean peninsula was divided post World War II in 1945. In 1950, North Korea, supported by China and Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations and US forces intervened on behalf of the South and the invading army was driven out during the Korean War. The two nations signed an armistice in 1953, however, there has been no peace treaty and they are technically still at war. South Korea currently houses over 25,000 American soldiers as a part of the United States Forces in Korea (USFK).
US President Donald Trump had earlier taken an aggressive stance while countering North Korea. In 2017, he said that North Korea “will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea responded by announcing that plans were underway for it to strike Guam, a US territory. Both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump were locked in an extended war of words in 2017, with both threatening war.
In 2018, the tide turned in the ties between US and North Korea. It began with the North Korean leader announcing that he was willing to enter into diplomatic discussions with South Korea. Since then, the relationship between South Korea and North Korea has exponentially improved. North Korea sent across a delegation to participate in the Winter Olympics held in Seoul. In March 2018, a South Korean delegation headed to North Korea to partake in historic talks to ease the tensions that have built up in the Korean peninsula. In part due to these talks, it was announced that Trump and Kim Jong Un would meet sometime in May to begin discussions. This would be the first time in history of North Korea when a US President would meet a North Korean head of state.
Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director, reportedly met with high ranking North Korean officials in early April. Pompeo, who is likely to become the next Secretary of the State, visited North Korea to discuss the upcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with US president Donald Trump. Even though the main agenda was to talk about trade, it is likely that both countries discussed the threat of North Korea. For its part, Japan would want short range nuclear missiles and the total nuclear programme to be completely stopped.
Kim Jong Un is now scheduled to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-In in May 2018. In this landmark meeting, for the first time the heads of state from both countries have met in over a decade. It comes just months after the Olympics when Kim Jong Un’s sister met with South Korean leaders including Moon Jae-in. The meeting will take place in the demilitarized zone where the two countries share a border. Ahead of this meeting, South Korea has stopped broadcasting propaganda via loudspeakers along the border with North Korea.
This is an incredible turnaround for a nation that has long secluded itself from the world. This also brings about the prospect of ending the Korean war. Even though an armistice was signed in 1950, a peace treaty was never officially signed between North Korea and South Korea. Why did Kim Jong Un dramatically change his tactics?
According to William Brown, adjunct professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, one of the main reasons behind the change is the struggling North Korean economy. Economic hardship and famines are not reported. North Korea is one of the hardest countries for foreign media to cover. However, in 2017, it was reported that North Korea continued to build its nuclear arsenal but there were fears that it will face a famine. The region had struggled under famine between 1994 and 1998. In addition, the collapse of trade ties between North Korea and China has also hit the nation. Brown noted, “The weak state economy forced Kim to swallow Trump's aggressive posturing, reach out to Seoul and Washington, and take the train to Beijing. We don't know what Xi discussed with Kim, but it could involve some sanctions relief in return for sincere summit talks.”
Getting the nuclear deterrent
In 2017, North Korea continued to test multiple long-range missiles and conducted its sixth nuclear test. It was also reported that it had developed an ICBM that could reach anywhere in the US. Thus, the nation probably believes that it now has enough leverage to walk into negotiations with the US and be treated as an equal.
To avoid war
In the past, US Presidents have not openly discussed going to war against North Korea. However, in 2017, US President Donald Trump broached the subject noting that he would be willing to engage in military conflict. Adam Mount, Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Posture Project, Federation of American Scientists notes, “If it ever came to major war, North Korea would inflict massive damage on South Korean, Japanese, and US citizens. But even as it did, the regime would likely sustain enormous losses. Its leaders could lose their grip on power or their lives.”
To have sanctions lifted & receive aid
In the last 12 months, the United Nations has continued to impose some of the harshest sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions would cripple the country’s economy and also prevent it from accessing resources like fuel. During Obama’s presidency, North Korea admitted that it was willing to denuclearize and in return the US agreed to provide it with food aid. The deal fell through almost immediately at the time.
It has the support of China
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and its most powerful ally. However, in the recent years, the ties between the two countries have soured. In 2018, Kim Jong Un made an unofficial visit to China ahead of his meeting with South Korean leader and Trump. Given that China has supported the UN sanctions against North Korea; the latter nation may have decided that by compromising, it will be able to once again receive the full support and protection from China.
As we stated earlier, our assessment is that, meeting between North Korea and the US President would be seen as a major win domestically for Kim Jong Un. It would also pave the way for sanctions to be lifted. We believe that for US President Donald Trump, it would be a major foreign policy breakthrough if he gets North Korea to successfully denuclearize.
Read more: North Korea ends nuclear tests