Pyongyang’s series of short-range ballistic missiles firings of late is part of Kim Jong Un’s efforts to keep US President Donald Trump focused on the North’s demands for sanctions relief and to express displeasure for last month’s US-Republic of Korea “Don Maeng” joint military exercises. Kim’s obnoxious yet calculated behavior has led some to call for a breaking off of talks and a reigning in of the recalcitrant regime.
So, is it time to put Kim back in his box? Well, yes, although with the box half open.
To date, Kim has not taken any meaningful steps towards denuclearization. As his primary focus is the survival of the Kim Dynasty, he has not relinquished any of his nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, nor has he shut down any of his nuclear facilities. Despite prior pledges, Kim has not allowed unfettered inspections of his facilities.
Beyond this, a non-nuclear conflict with North Korea would be costly given the 30 million South Korean citizens, 200,000 US citizens and 25,000 US military personnel concentrated in greater Seoul, all of whom are within range of the North’s rocket battery artillery.
This reality still requires the US and its allies to maintain a North Korea policy involving a long game of strategic deterrence, containment and sanctions while leaving the door open to negotiations. This approach, although imperfect, has worked well on the Korean Peninsula over the past 65 years. While it has failed to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapons program, it has prevented another Korean war.
From a security standpoint, yes, it’s time to put Kim back in his box. Kim has had ample time to demonstrate verifiable steps towards denuclearization yet he has opted not to do so.
Yet, the impasse over Kim’s nuclear weapons program may be an opportunity for the US to establish an alternative form of diplomatic relations with the North. Perhaps a long-term goal of luring Pyongyang away from Beijing, the North’s sponsor and sole military partner, is in order.
Trump’s critics argue that his personal outreach to Kim unnecessarily gives up leverage and even emboldens Kim to engage in further missile tests and provocations, yet the president’s preferred diplomacy of developing relationships with leaders can be useful here. It would also require Washington to keep Kim’s box half open, allowing him to pop out every now and then for negotiations and statecraft.
While this scenario may seem ludicrous to many, such a development has often been a source of anxiety for Chinese policymakers. For decades, Beijing has worried that Washington and Pyongyang would develop a partnership – even an alliance – that would leave Beijing on the outside, devoid of influence on the Korean Peninsula. The concern is that that Trump could pull off a Nixon-China move, bringing North Korea into America’s orbit.
It is in Washington’s interest to play on these Chinese fears to keep Beijing off balance and on the defensive. Developing a new relationship with Pyongyang would serve as a blow to China’s stature in the region. It would also force Beijing to grapple with the strategic challenges associated with yet another nuclear armed state on its border – the third, after Russia and India – that pursues its own foreign policy objectives which often clash with Beijing’s interests.
(The fourth nuclear state on China’s border, Pakistan, is arguably a different ball of wax as it is typically compliant with Beijing’s imperatives due to its reliance on Chinese aid, infrastructure development and political support vis a vis India.)
While it is unrealistic to expect that Washington and Pyongyang will become allies, it is within the realm of possibility that both countries could develop a working relationship, moving from a state of brinkmanship to one of transactional exchanges, possibly even cooperation in some realms.
While it is unrealistic to expect that Washington and Pyongyang will become allies, it is within the realm of possibility that both countries could develop a working relationship, moving from a state of brinkmanship to one of transactional exchanges, possibly even cooperation in some realms
What would Kim want out of such a relationship? Sanctions relief and assurances of his personal security while not giving up any political control. Part of this may involve a game of balancing larger powers against one another, thereby developing a relationship with Washington in order to shield the North from Chinese coercion. In order to secure these benefits, Kim may be willing to partly dismantle his weapons program.
Some initial areas of understanding and cooperation may be 1) a US security guarantee for Kim in exchange for pledges by Pyongyang to not attack the US or its allies, 2) a peace treaty and normalization of relations between both countries, 3) an agreement that leaves partially intact the North’s nuclear program and keeps US forces on the Korean Peninsula, and 4) economic investment commitments by the US on the condition that the North end its weapons proliferation and take specified steps to improve its human rights record.
A scenario of this nature would possibly open the doors to collaboration on food security, economic development and further North-South reconciliation. It may also serve as a wedge between Pyongyang and Beijing, degrading Beijing’s ability to determine facts on the ground in North Korea while strengthening Washington’s influence on the peninsula.
The bellicose relationship between Washington and Pyongyang in years past leaves much to be desired. While Trump’s efforts to form a rapport with Kim are unlikely to result in the North’s denuclearization, they may just set the stage for moving US-North Korean relations from a state of impending war to one of basic, working ties. Such a platform could lend itself to geopolitical cooperation, yielding strategic benefits in Washington’s decades-long rivalry with Beijing.
Yes, it’s time to put Kim back in his box. But, let’s keep the lid half open, allowing for both Pyongyang and Washington to pursue new strategic thinking and diplomatic possibilities.