How Kim Jong Un Seized Control of the Nuclear Crisis

And slowed down talk of war in Washington

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets South Korea's head of national security in Pyongyang. (Reuters / Yonhap)

Kim Jong Un just made two extraordinary moves. First, a man who hasn’t encountered another head of state and rarely interacts with foreign officials, who hasn’t traveled abroad since becoming North Korea’s leader and whose most prominent international contacts include a Japanese sushi chef and Dennis Rodman, played statesman by hosting top South Korean officials for dinner and hours of meetings in Pyongyang. Second, a man who has come to embody the North’s steely determination to become a full-fledged nuclear-weapons power at any cost appeared to signal that he’d be open to giving up that arsenal for the right price.

North Korea “made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed,” the office of South Korean President Moon Jae In announced on Tuesday. According to South Korea’s account, the North Koreans expressed willingness to negotiate directly with America on “denuclearization” and “normalizing” U.S.-North Korea relations, to suspend nuclear and missile tests during the talks, and to hold a summit in April between Kim and Moon along the border between the two Koreas. As of this writing, North Korea had yet to confirm that it has made these commitments—if it does, this would be the first time Kim Jong Un has even signaled his nuclear program itself is negotiable.

That Kim has taken such steps could be chalked up to the success of the Trump administration’s international campaign to pressure North Korea economically and politically, and of the Moon administration’s diplomatic engagement with the North during the Winter Olympics in South Korea. But it may also be a wily maneuver by Kim himself. Just a few months ago, following North Korea’s most powerful nuclear test and longest-range missile test ever, the Trump administration was insisting that the times weren’t ripe for talks with North Korea and that time was running out to avoid war over the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Now, after the United States set aside the stopwatch during the Olympics, Kim Jong Un is “controlling the clock,” says Jung Pak, who spent years studying Kim as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. government.

“There was a momentum toward a [U.S.] military option” against North Korea over the summer and fall, Pak told me on Monday, before Tuesday’s announcement from South Korea, “but what the Olympics thaw or propaganda or pageantry did was it slowed time down. … The more there’s inter-Korean engagement, the more wind is taken out of the sails of preemptive or preventive strikes on North Korea.” In welcoming a South Korean delegation to his capital for a historic visit this week, Kim is conveying “his mastery of the situation,” she observed.

Kim may also be angling to ease suffocating sanctions against the North, and more specifically, to garner positive publicity and economic relief ahead of the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding in September, said Pak. But she was skeptical that North Korea would ever fully relinquish its nuclear weapons, as the Trump administration has demanded. “It’s in Kim Jong Un’s DNA to pursue nuclear weapons,” Pak noted. “His grandfather wanted it. His father wanted it.” She pointed out that his father, Kim Jong Il, tested North Korea’s first nuclear weapon in 2006, when Kim Jong Un was in his early 20s. “Kim Jong Un, in his adult life, has not known a non-nuclear North Korea,” she explained. Kim speaks of a nuclear-launch button on his office desk, and his propagandists put out images of him supervising missile launches and offering guidance to nuclear scientists. “When you’re looking at the iconography of the nuclear program, he owns it. … He’s the only one who stands between complete annihilation by the United States and nuclear glory.” (Inter-Korean summits, incidentally, are also part of his father’s playbook: Kim Jong Il attended two in 2000 and 2007.)

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Bill Perry—who during the Clinton administration in the 1990s considered military strikes against North Korea’s embryonic nuclear program—told me in August that he no longer thought the denuclearization of North Korea was a realistic objective. He, too, engaged back then in an effort to trade security guarantees for a dismantling of the North’s nuclear arsenal. “What I think we could negotiate today—not easily—is an agreement to freeze the nuclear testing and freeze the missile tests,” he said. He felt such an agreement was “very much worth having,” since the North is so close to acquiring the capability to place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States.

Here’s what I wrote at the time regarding Perry’s vision for what the North Koreans could get in return:

Perry told me that he’d gained insight into the leadership’s priorities during his discussions with North Korean officials in the late 1990s. Their number-one goal is the survival of the Kim regime, he noted, followed by international respect and recognition and then, in third place, improving the economy. So while it’s worth experimenting with economic disincentives (such as sanctions, especially by North Korea’s top trading partner, China) and economic incentives (such as reopening and replicating Kaesong, an industrial complex jointly run by North Korea and South Korea), that’s not where the United States has the most leverage against North Korea.

According to Perry, the Trump administration could consider dangling a range of security assurances in front of North Korea—from finally signing a peace agreement to end the Korean War, with support from the Chinese and South Koreans, to issuing a statement of non-aggression against North Korea “co-signed” by China, which has a defense treaty with the North and fears the turmoil that could result from the Kim government collapsing. The U.S. could also appeal to North Korea’s desire for international prestige by taking steps toward establishing a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang and normal relations between the two countries.

When I spoke last week with the Republican Senator Jim Risch, an influential supporter of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, he didn’t sound particularly optimistic about where talks with the North would lead. “I subscribe to the president’s theory that talking is good,” he said. “But our history of talking with the North has not been good. … They made demands before they’d even sit down at the table—they wanted food, they wanted oil and fuel, they wanted release of sanctions, and those were all given to them when the talks started last time. That is not going to happen this time.”

He made another point that looks quite prophetic given the events of the last 24 hours. The outcome of the North Korean nuclear crisis is “not in our hands,” he said. “It’s in one person’s hands, and that’s Kim Jong Un.”