The Inscrutable North Korea

The Korean peninsula has been a steady source of bad news for years, with Pyongyang in its paranoid-defiant mode, testing nuclear weapons and threatening not only South Korea and Japan but even the United States.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the news seems to be positive. The dictator of the Hermit Kingdom, Kim Jong Un, has made what looks like a turnabout. A rare summit meeting with South Korea is in the offing, an undertaking to suspend nuclear testing during talks, and a reported willingness to talk directly with Washington.

From Seoul came the amazing statement from the South Korean president’s office on Tuesday which, based on preliminary contacts, said: “The North showed willingness on denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. If military threats to the North Korea decrease and regime safety is guaranteed, the North showed that it has no reason to retain nukes.”

If true, it means that North Korea has begun to climb down from its repeated insistence on maintaining its nuclear program no matter what, as a professed imperative of national security.

President Donald Trump’s response has been everything it should be: Cautious optimism, given the North’s abysmal record of broken promises in past negotiations.

He does not want to follow in the footsteps of his disappointed predecessors. After saying that the “dialogue has been very good,” he immediately noted, “but so far, whether you look at the Clinton administration, or the Bush administration, or the Obama administration, it never worked out.”

The president’s attitude, then, is somewhere south of cautiously optimistic. As he put it: “I’d like to be optimistic.” Even cautious optimism is a diplomatic no-go zone, that an American president can only hope to enter, if and when the clouds of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula dissipate further.

Despite prodding from reporters at a White House press conference with Prime Minister Lofven of Sweden on Tuesday, Mr. Trump would not be drawn on what will be.

When asked if he believes “the North Koreans are prepared to give up their nuclear weapons?” he replied: “We’re going to see. We’re going to see. They seem to be acting positively, but we’re going to see.”

However, Mr. Trump did let his guard down somewhat when another journalist subsequently asked if he thought “North Korea’s recent willingness to talk is sincere, or is it an effort to buy time for their nuclear program?”&

The president’s answer was in the affirmative: “I think that they are sincere…” Though he immediately attached an appositive, explaining that the Pyongyangian sincerity was not necessarily borne of a newfound desire for peninsular peace and global goodwill.

Rather, the president attributed it to pragmatism: “I think they’re sincere also because the sanctions and what we’re doing with respect to North Korea, including, you know, the great help that we’ve been given from China.”

That in effect was his answer to the questions everyone is asking about the North Korean change: Why? And why now?

As in the case of Iran before the nuclear agreement, economic sanctions have had a significant, perhaps even crippling effect.

While sanctions have been going on for a long time, sanctions do not work overnight; the effect is cumulative, as financial restrictions hamper economic policies, goods become scarcer and the people grow restless under increasing hardship.

The latest U.S.-led round of sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, imposed in late 2017, entailed an export ban on the country’s $3 billion coal and other mineral industries, its clothing and seafood exports, and cut oil imports by a third. The ban wasn’t airtight, but it must have hurt.

There are other theories as well. Kim may feel that he can afford to be conciliatory now that he’s got a nuclear gun on his hip. He may also see an opportunity to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. President Trump and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in have been harmonizing their public statements recently, but it wasn’t so long ago that President Trump was accusing him of “appeasement.”

So it’s hard to say what changed. Given the inaccessibility of the regime, the lack of information about the decision-making process in Pyongyang (if there is one, besides Kim’s whims), it remains the inscrutable North, and pundits admit their peddling guesswork. But if anybody has reliable information about what goes in the North, it’s likely the president of the United States.

In the meantime, as Vice President Mike Pence, speaking for the administration said on Tuesday, while waiting to see if the change in Pyongyang is real, American policy continues unchanged:

“Whichever direction talks with North Korea go, we will be firm in our resolve. The United States and our allies remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program. All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable, and concrete steps toward denuclearization.”

Well put.