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.