The South Korean scholar Yong-Sup Han didn’t describe these dynamics this week, after North Korea first announced, following months of brinkmanship, that it was prepared for a presidential summit with South Korea and sweeping nuclear negotiations with the United States. Instead, he noted them nearly two decades ago, after analyzing how the North’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and apparent effort to reprocess fuel for nuclear weapons in the early 1990s sparked a flurry of international diplomacy.
The result was the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea consented to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for oil, nuclear-power reactors that couldn’t be used for nuclear weapons, and promises of normal diplomatic relations with the United States. But the deal, like later nuclear accords with North Korea, ultimately collapsed. This happened in part because of policy shifts between the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but also because the United States discovered in 2002 that the North Koreans were secretly working on enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
In assessing the news that North Korea is now open to “denuclearization” talks with the United States, “it’s really hard to conclude at this point that all of a sudden Kim Jong Un woke up one day and decided to genuinely give up nuclear weapons after [conducting] 90 missile tests and nuclear tests,” since coming to power in 2011, Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Korea analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me earlier this week. These, she noted, included a suspected hydrogen bomb and three intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Kim may be hoping that the “playbook of provocation, then peace offensive, then negotiation and concession,” which worked for his father and grandfather, can work for him as well, Terry said. Waves of diplomatic progress with North Korea have repeatedly receded over the North’s refusal to disclose all of its nuclear activities and verify that it is no longer engaging in them, because the North Koreans “don’t really want” to relinquish their nuclear-weapons program. This time around, the North Koreans could be opting for talks in order “to wait Trump out—buy time, avoid further sanctions or God forbid a [military] strike,” she said.
What Kim Jong Un actually wants is “to be bought off. What we may be starting is the haggling phase,” Daniel Russel, who stepped down last year as the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asian and Pacific affairs, argued on Pod Save the World this week. Noting North Korea’s habit of “driving up the fear factor” to painful levels and then releasing “a flood of endorphins in the bloodstream of South Korea and the U.S. and Japan,” he speculated that Kim is looking for “a rental deal where [the Americans] basically pay off North Korea month to month, week to week, to tamp down its misbehavior.”