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What Does North Korea Want?


The recently concluded meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un was most certainly a step toward peace on the peninsula. Along with the upcoming summit between Kim and President Trump, a peaceful, denuclearized Korean peninsula may be just around the corner. At least, that is the hope.

Image courtesy of Janne Wittoeck, © 2018

There has been plenty of lofty and optimistic talk in the wake of President Moon and Kim’s meeting. When the summit between President Trump and Kim was announced, there was an upwellsurge of hope regarding peace on the peninsula. There has been even more lofty and optimistic talk in the wake of President Moon and Kim’s meeting. Yet, some questions remain. Why now? What has changed for Kim to motivate him to pursue peace? And more to the point, what does North Korea want?

The North Korean regime’s goal is the same as it has been since the end of the Cold War: survival. The same can be said for Kim Jong-un. The “why now” and “what’s changed” questions have an equally simple answer: Kim Jong-un believes that he has a fully functioning nuclear deterrent that puts him on the same footing as the other nuclear powers. Thus, he believes he can engage with South Korea and the United States without fear of North Korea being invaded by the United States or his regime being toppled remotely.

North Korea’s nuclear program dates back to the 1980s, when Kim Il-sung laid the foundations of the program, but was forced to halt by the Soviet Union. In 2003, after nearly two decades of talks, inspections, and summits, Kim Jong-Il announced that North Korea would restart its nuclear program. In October 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device. With Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power in 2011, nuclear testing accelerated in tandem with North Korea’s long range missile program. In November 2017, after testing a Hwasong-15 ICBM, Kim Jong-un declared North Korea’s nuclear program complete.

None of the above occurred in a vacuum. While North Korea was negotiating over its nuclear program, it was observing the international environment: the United States invaded Iraq twice, toppling Saddam Hussein the second go-round, invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban, and declared North Korea a member of a so-called “axis of evil.” The Arab Spring led to the fall and death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad losing absolute control of Syria in a tumultuous civil war. In both cases, the opposition was supported by the United States and a pantheon of Western allies. Any reasonable dictator would rationalize a need to keep the Western powers from invading, lest they be next on the chopping block. Furthermore, targeted regimes, Hussein, Gaddafi, and Assad, had or were thought to have had a nuclear program that was prematurely terminated. The obvious lesson is that the West will end a threatening, dictatorial regime when supplied the reason or opportunity.

Above all, Kim Jong-un wants to ensure regime survival. This is at the root of what motivates every state, but Kim Jong-un faces a sizable threat in the United States, a still global superpower. Seeing the United States and its allies support regime change against other authoritarian regimes, Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, concluded that they would need a nuclear deterrent to keep the United States at bay. Now that he believes he has such a deterrent, Kim Jong-un is willing to come to the table to talk, even taking the remarkable step over the DMZ to talk to President Moon.

No one should expect Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons without concrete assurances of his and his regime’s safety. At the minimum this would likely entail: a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, a formal renunciation by the South Korean government of its desire for unification (unification would mean an end to Kim Jong-un’s regime), a permanent and defined border between the two Koreas, and end or moratorium on joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, and a withdrawal of American troops from the DMZ area, if not the entire peninsula. Even if peace is achieved, and Kim Jong-un is convinced to give up his current arsenal, it is highly unlikely that he will be willing to give up his ability to make more nuclear weapons in the future.

If the upcoming talks between Kim Jong-un and President Trump are to be successful in any way, the United States must be realistic about what outcome to expect. Rather than simply hoping for the best, the United States and South Korea should plan for the worst and expect a continuation of the status quo. While there is much cause for celebration in North and South Korea actually talking, there is no reason to assume that the talks will lead to disarmament and peace.

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