Why you should care
Because questions over Kim’s sincerity linger.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a changed man — at least that’s what he wants us to believe. Stepping across the tense inter-Korean border for historic talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday, the third-generation dictator who once boasted of keeping a nuclear button on his desk was nowhere to be seen. Here instead was Kim Jong Un — diplomat, statesman, man of peace.
“A new history begins now,” wrote Kim in the guest book at Peace House, the border-straddling venue for the first meeting between the leaders of North and South in over a decade, “at the starting point of history and the era of peace.”
By the end of the day, Kim and his South Korean counterpart had announced a joint statement promising to work toward signing a peace treaty to end the Korean War on the 65th anniversary of the armistice later this year. They also committed to working toward denuclearization of the peninsula, but steered clear of specifics. Ahead of the North Korean leader’s likely meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump sometime later this summer, the declaration seems like a monumental breakthrough in an increasingly tense nuclear standoff.
But if history is any guide, there’s reason to doubt the current thaw will lead to a real breakthrough. “If North Korea would fulfil the agreements we had already made, we wouldn’t have to be making new agreements,” says Daniel Pinkston, a former Korean linguist with the U.S. Air Force who now lectures at Troy University in Seoul.
Indeed, North Korea has been making and breaking agreements for decades. In 1972, the two Koreas struck an agreement to foster “an atmosphere of mutual trust” and promote peaceful reunification. In 1991, the sides signed a non-aggression pact hailed by South Korean officials at the time as a “historic milestone.” The leaders of the two countries met in 2000 and 2007, only for renewed cycles of tension and occasional violence to follow.
[Kim] believes that he has been successful in making North Korea a nuclear state
Lim Jae-cheon, Korea University
Still, there is optimism here in South Korea for a way forward. Most South Koreans supported the idea of the summit, according to opinion surveys, even if many remain cautious about what it can actually achieve. “The end of the Korean War is not something the North and South can agree to by themselves of course,” says Lee Yun-hee, a 37-year-old former journalist in Seoul. “I don’t know how the United States and China will come out, but the current situation does look very optimistic.”
But while both Trump and Moon have received credit for bringing the North Korean leader to the table this time around, it’s probable that Kim is in fact exactly where he wants to be. “Kim will use the summits to dismantle U.N. sanctions,” says Lim Jae-cheon, an associate professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.
“He believes that he has been successful in making North Korea a nuclear state,” Lim adds. “Now he may want to be portrayed as a leader who really makes concerted efforts to improve the North Korean economy for the people through the success of the summits.”
Despite Kim’s overtures, many experts doubt he will ever surrender a nuclear arsenal that guarantees the security of his regime and serves as an invaluable bargaining chip on the international stage. Kim’s statements to his own people offer a potential clue as to his true intentions. In a state media announcement declaring a halt to nuclear and missile tests ahead of the summit, Kim also struck a confident note about the regime’s capabilities, declaring that it “faithfully realized the nuclear weaponization.” The party line in the North is what finds its way, through the propaganda agitation department, to the media there, suggests Pinkston. “So, we need to read and listen to exactly what they say.”
The challenge for Seoul and Washington, analysts say, will be to ensure that the isolated North sticks to any agreement it makes on dismantling nuclear weapons.
“Given their stockpile of nuclear warheads and missiles, which can be concealed deep inside remote, mountainous areas, perfect verification of the dismantlement is virtually impossible,” says Nam Chang-hee, an international relations professor at Inha University in Incheon, a city 20 miles west of Seoul.
In fact, the outside world doesn’t actually know the full extent of the regime’s arsenal or its capabilities. Lim points out that it’s a mystery, for example, how many uranium facilities are being operated inside the country or how much uranium has been enriched to date.
All of which leaves Kim in a strong position to make promises he has no intention of keeping. After all, he has plenty to gain — namely relief from sanctions and respite from the threat of military action repeatedly invoked by Trump. In the end, Kim’s dovish turn may end up being nothing more than what Pinkston describes as “more of the same strategy” — buying time while continuing to bolster the regime. That shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s a strategy that served Kim’s father and grandfather before him well.