Following their historic meeting in Singapore last June, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump are preparing for another summit in late February. Their negotiators are now working on what the two heads of state might discuss and agree on. The big-picture goal on the US side is to convince Pyongyang to completely give up its nuclear weapons program. North Korea’s goals are more complex, and negotiations will get even trickier this year.
Kim Jong-un’s aims and likely negotiating tactics for the next summit can be gleaned from two recent events. First, the North Korean leader’s New Year’s speech on January 1 gave a sense of his game plan. Second, his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the second week of January served as a first step in operationalizing that plan, and offered further clues on how he will try to achieve his ambitions. Together they show a leader who will work fervently to negotiate a peace regime that replaces the Korean War armistice; denuclearize the entire Korean Peninsula (not just the North); and create the conditions for one Korea unified under the North Korean flag, a national objective dating back to his grandfather Kim Il-sung. All three goals share a common denominator: Kim wishes to break the US-South Korea alliance and eventually rid the peninsula entirely of the American presence.
Kim on the year ahead. After a chaotic 2017 during which Trump and Kim threatened each other and their countries with nuclear annihilation, Kim began 2018 with a peace offensive, participating in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and expressing a desire for better relations with Seoul. As of the beginning of 2019, he is pushing the peace campaign to new heights and using it to craft a public image of himself as a peacemaker, in an effort to get US and UN sanctions on his country lifted. But Kim’s speech also made clear that US and North Korean definitions of peace do not necessarily correspond.
In addition to conveying a detailed domestic agenda as usual (the key word for 2019 being “modernization” across all sectors), this year’s address spent an unusual amount of time on relations with Washington. Kim called on the United States to fulfill its end of the Singapore statement, specifically by establishing “new US-DPRK relations” and a peace regime—that is, a system of institutions and mechanisms, underpinned by a treaty, that will sustain peace over the long term. He portrayed North Korea as a far bigger peace promoter than the United States. Overall, the address placed much weight on the regime’s effort to achieve domestic strength without US or other outside help, and inter-Korean peace and unification without the influence of big-power meddlers. Portraying himself as the leader of both Koreas—and indeed, of all Koreans around the world—Kim emphasized the regime’s longtime objective of national reconciliation, unity, and unification by Koreans alone, warning that he will “never tolerate the interference and intervention of outside forces who stand in the way.”
Kim also painted a day-and-night contrast between Pyongyang’s drastically improved relations with Seoul and stagnant relations with Washington over the past year. For instance, he said he was “very happy” with the progress the two Koreas made last year, praising their efforts to “remove military hostility on the whole of the Korean peninsula, including the ground, airspace and sea.” Here, “military hostility” is code for “the US military.” He suggested that despite the Singapore statement, relations with Washington have fallen short compared to the bold ways the two Koreas are transforming their ties. Kim called on Seoul to end its joint military exercises with Washington and stop the deployment of American military assets to the peninsula.
The speech also suggested that the North may be taking a broader approach to peace than just bilateral negotiations with Washington. Kim called for “multi-party negotiations for replacing the current ceasefire on the Korean peninsula with a peace mechanism in close contact with the signatories to the armistice agreement.” This hints that he may seek a two-track process: bilateral talks with the United States towards denuclearizing all of the peninsula, plus a multilateral process, presumably to include China, toward a peace regime.
Global pundits scratched their heads over Kim’s warning that if Washington did not deliver on the Singapore statement and continued to impose sanctions, Pyongyang would have no choice but to seek “a new way” to achieve Korean peace and stability. Korean is a high-context language—when you ask for the definition of a word, the first reply will usually be a question about how it was used. The cryptic phrase “a new way” has even raised eyebrows among South Koreans. Still, there were enough hints to gauge what he might have meant. A combination of Korean cultural indicators and contextual clues suggest that to Kim, a “new way” could mean achieving prosperity without America’s help, and deepening diplomatic engagement with like-minded countries. After all, Kim will likely be in power for decades to come and is playing the long game beyond a Trump presidency. Kim said he will “continue to bolster up unity and cooperation with the socialist countries and develop relations with all countries that are friendly to us under the ideals of independence, peace, and friendship.” Soon afterwards, he visited Beijing. He may have a bigger vision than merely obsessing over Washington, and be looking to a future of radically less US clout in Korean affairs. To be sure, none of this precludes the possibility of returning to a hardline stance if Pyongyang feels Washington has forced its hand. Kim’s ambiguous “new way” leaves all options open from which to conveniently choose and justify his future action.
The China summit. The first major foreign affairs step Kim took in 2019 was his visit to Beijing. In his meeting with Xi, Kim repeated some of the same messages he conveyed in his New Year’s address. For example, according to the North’s state-run news agency, Kim expressed to Xi the “difficulties and concern arising in the course of the improvement of the DPRK-U.S. relations and the negotiations for the denuclearization and the prospects of resolving them.” It also reported that the two leaders discussed their “joint study and coordination of the management of the situation of the Korean peninsula and the denuclearization negotiations.” This joint “study” sounds like an echo of the “multi-party negotiations” Kim called for on New Year’s Day.
The Kim-Xi summit should not be taken as a sign that Pyongyang is increasing its reliance on Beijing—indeed, North Korea-China relations have recently been at one of their lowest points. Rather, Pyongyang is banding together with an ally who shares the common strategic objective of removing the US presence and influence from the region. Negotiating a peace treaty would be a savvy way to rid the Korean Peninsula of US troops without having to overtly demand their withdrawal.
As the North Korean leader seeks to expand his geopolitical playing field, it is only a matter of time until Pyongyang-Moscow relations become more active. Three nuclear-armed neighbors—North Korea, China, and Russia—acting in concert would only add to the list of irritants for the United States. It would not be surprising if Kim eventually expanded his team even further to comrades in the Middle East and beyond.
Where that leaves Washington. Last June, the Trump administration in effect agreed in the Singapore Joint Statement to the North’s preferred sequence for negotiations: First, new relations, then a peace regime, and finally, denuclearization. In previous agreements, denuclearization had always been the first order of business, so this complicated negotiations from the start. Furthermore, while the Singapore statement said they would work towards “complete denuclearization,” the two sides never agreed on a definition, and it was clear from the beginning that they didn’t mean the same thing. Pyongyang will want any discussion of denuclearization to involve not just North Korea eliminating its nuclear arsenal, but the United States doing the same. To Pyongyang, “denuclearization” includes the removal of any US strategic assets, nuclear-capable weapons, and troops from South Korea and nearby locations (presumably including Guam), as well as an end to the Washington-Seoul alliance as a whole. Another sticking point to anticipate is that while the Trump administration intends “denuclearization” to include prohibiting a nuclear energy program, Kim considers nuclear energy an important source of electricity for his country, as he indicated in his New Year’s speech. Taking history as a guide, the North can be expected to demand nuclear power plants from Washington or perhaps another seller such as Russia, China, or even South Korea. The only conceivable way Pyongyang would be eligible to be considered to receive reactors would be if it agreed, in a denuclearization agreement with Washington, to give up its nuclear weapons and return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as accept IAEA full-scope safeguards as global industry rules require.
Washington has insisted that Pyongyang show it is serious about denuclearization before other steps can take place. (North Korea believes that since the summit in Singapore, the Trump administration has ignored the negotiating sequence it agreed to there.) But if the United States really wants Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear weapons program, it will need to rethink its approach of rewarding the regime only after denuclearization. Instead, American concessions could be phased in, beginning with the most modest and easily reversible measures, like humanitarian assistance, and ramping up to highly significant and hard-to-reverse measures, like a peace treaty. This way, proportionate tradeoffs could be made: a symbolic step for a symbolic step, and eventually, strategically important American concessions for strategically important North Korean steps.
What is most imperative now, however, is for the two sides to negotiate a comprehensive roadmap to denuclearization and peace, with milestones and timetables that outline every quid pro quo until they reach zero North Korean nuclear weapons and a peace treaty. At the next summit, Washington must avoid piecemeal negotiations or a “mini deal” without a roadmap, one based only on symbolic offerings—a missile or missile facility, a test site, or the Yongbyon nuclear complex—that allow North Korea to dictate the terms, pace, and duration of the process. Otherwise, “denuclearization” may peter out into publicity stunts without making a dent in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Editor’s Note: Duyeon Kim’s research is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.