North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, walks toward South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Friday, April 27, 2018.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, walks toward South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Friday, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool via AP

Making the Most of North Korea’s Mixed Motives

To work toward peace, the White House will need to lead a tightly coordinated balancing act to deter Kim Jong-un’s worst intentions while leveraging his desire for economic development.

President Donald J. Trump announced today that his highly anticipated meeting with Kim Jong-un will take place in Singapore on June 12. The historic meeting will mark the first time a sitting U.S. president has ever met with the leader of North Korea. 

Perhaps the most consequential question going into the summit is—what are Pyongyang’s true intentions? What explains Kim’s sudden about face on the negotiability of his nuclear weapons program and his flurry of diplomatic outreach to Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo? Was he driven by fears of an impending military strike by Washington? Were the economic sanctions, especially with Beijing’s unprecedented support in recent months, truly beginning to bite? Or was this all part of a carefully scripted plan by Kim first to build up a serious nuclear weapons capability and then negotiate from a position of strength? 

Furthermore, how does Kim intend to use this opportunity to sit down with Donald Trump come June? Does he see negotiations simply as a stalling mechanism to reduce pressure while he continues to covertly advance his nuclear weapons program? Or is he serious about denuclearizing in exchange for a security guarantee and the opportunity for economic development? 

While it’s impossible to confirm with absolute certainty what Kim Jong-un’s “true” motives are, the most likely answer is “all of the above.” First, Kim undoubtedly wants relief from the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. If President Trump’s rhetoric about a potential “bloody nose strike” alarmed leaders and insiders in both Washington and Asia, it definitely spooked Kim and his deputies in Pyongyang. In addition, while there’s a debate about the effectiveness of sanctions, Beijing’s striking moves to pressure Pyongyang, from reducing oil exports to shutting down North Korean businesses operating in China, caught Kim’s attention and most certainly impacted his assessment on the sustainability of living under growing sanctions.

While negotiating, Kim will most likely hedge by covertly maintaining his nuclear program in some manner. After all, North Korea has cheated in the past while talking with the United States and others. Furthermore, Kim has no reason not to hedge at this point, given uncertainties about the future—from the United States’ long-term intentions toward North Korea to potential domestic and regional developments that may threaten his regime.

Finally, Kim Jong-un also seems serious about his desire to pursue economic development. A few weeks ago, he announced in a speech before crossing the DMZ to meet with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea that he was retiring his "byungjin" policy of simultaneously pursuing nuclear weapons and economic development, to adopt a “new strategic line” that prioritizes economic growth. Kim has, in fact, promised his people since the beginning of his rule that he would lead his country to prosperity, and he most likely feels that he must deliver on this front. 

In sum, Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic blitzkrieg is driven by multiple motives. To make the most of this opportunity, the White House will need to lead a tightly coordinated balancing act along with South Korea, China, and other regional players to leverage the best of Kim’s intentions, while discouraging the worst. 

First, as the leading force in the push for denuclearization, the United States must build a coalition around a carefully calibrated roadmap to this end goal. While the White House has vowed to continue the maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps to denuclearize, sustaining economic pressure will be impossible if South Korea or China begin to prematurely loosen sanctions or offer economic incentives to Pyongyang. Both states seem eager to jumpstart economic cooperation, with Beijing calling on Washington to reciprocate Pyongyang’s overtures, and South Korean leaders and businesses seeking to restart or launch various inter-Korean projects.

President Trump, therefore, will need to rally his South Korean and Chinese counterparts to support a plan which initially involves offering North Korea rewards that do not involve sanctions relief, such as greater diplomatic contact and tightly monitored humanitarian assistance. Significant economic rewards should and can be outlined in advance to incentivize North Korea, as President Moon did at his summit with Kim. But all parties should agree that these can only be delivered when North Korea submits to rigorous inspections, implements a verified freeze on nuclear and missile tests, development and proliferation, and commits to refrain from provocations in other realms—from conventional to cyber—that it has engaged in in the past.  President Trump should also signal his willingness to work toward a peace treaty if and when North Korea demonstrates its commitment to these requirements. Clearly defining mutual expectations will be critical for preventing disappointment and accusations among the key players down the road.

In addition, the United States must not dilute the credibility of its alliance commitments or its military capabilities in the region so that Pyongyang understands it cannot benefit from exploiting gaps between Washington and its allies. Any discussions about reducing U.S. troops in South Korea should only come much later in the future—if and when the two Koreas have taken significant steps toward economic and political integration, and live in sustained peace. 

The United States should also think very carefully about what military concessions, if any, it will offer to North Korea. Rather than concessions, the White House should consider offering Pyongyang the opportunity for military-to-military confidence-building and perhaps even an invitation to participate in joint exercises one day. While this may sound far-fetched today, if one considers Pyongyang’s fundamental mistrust of Beijing and its desire to balance against Chinese influence, such an arrangement could prove to be mutually beneficial. Finally, once Pyongyang takes the minimum steps toward denuclearization and peace discussed above, the United States—along with South Korea and China— should truly deliver support for North Korea’s economic development and its integration into the region—to build trust and convince North Korean leaders that living without nuclear weapons is a worthwhile compromise.

The world watches in anticipation as the countdown begins for the Trump-Kim summit. To turn this historic opening into sustainable engagement with North Korea, the White House has a challenging task ahead—from securing South Korean and Chinese support in advance, to carefully negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Kim Jong-un come June.