North Korea’s tricky balancing act

North Korea’s tricky balancing act

Ever since the UN Security Council imposed its third consecutive round of punitive sanctions against North Korea in 2017 over its controversial nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs, Pyongyang has embarked on a charm offensive toward its southern neighbor.
Toward that end, the two Koreas this week announced an agreement to march under a unity flag and field a joint ice hockey team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics which take place in South Korea next month.
On the surface, Pyongyang’s charm offensive — and ability to undergo a 180-degree transformation from carrying out numerous provocative ICBM tests to finding common ground with its neighbor over how to seemingly appeal to inter-Korean nostalgia for unification — underscores that the reclusive Stalinist regime is susceptible to international pressure.
But equally importantly, the North’s decision also seeks to send a broader message to the international community: That North Korea is a responsible actor operating within the league of nations and, if engaged properly, can play a stabilizing — perhaps even positive — role within the broader East Asia region.
In a chaotic international environment, there will inevitably be observers drawn to this logic as they see detente between the two Koreas as preferable to a full-scale war on the Peninsula, even if the price for detente will be billions of dollars in South Korean “investment” in North Korea and/or in “joint” industrial parks.
The problem with that logic, however, is that North Korea is the most brutal dictatorship the world has seen in modern times. And it has nothing to gain from liberalizing, let alone opening up to the international community.
The Stalinist regime has, since its founding in 1948, imprisoned millions of its own people in concentration camps where generations of families are forced to carry out slave labor because of the sins of their forefathers, according to various UN reports and testimonies provided by defectors.
The Pyongyang elite, along with the ruling Kim family, understands that the international community has compiled evidence of the regime’s brutal human-rights record over the decades and that its henchmen will face justice when — if — the regime collapses.
With that in mind, the regime has everything to lose from normalizing relations with the international community, even if it is demonstrating that it can engage in symbolic goodwill gestures toward the South.
What the North Korean leadership also understands is that neither Washington nor Tokyo will be persuaded by its charm offensive as its expanding ICBM capabilities present a clear threat to the US-Japan-South Korea strategic alliance.
Instead, what the Stalinist regime hopes to achieve from a temporary thaw in inter-Korean relations is to gain the additional time and resources required to advance its ICBM program as it faces the noose of tightening UNSC sanctions. North Korea considers its nuclear and ICBM programs its ultimate security guarantees for regime survival.
In the meantime, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly rejected a freeze in US-South Korean bilateral military exercises in exchange for a freeze in Pyongyang’s expenditure on either its ICBM program or ICBM tests.

The Pyongyang elite, along with the ruling Kim family, understands that the international community has compiled evidence of the regime’s brutal human-rights record over the decades and that its henchmen will face justice when — if — the regime collapses.

Sigurd Neubauer

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has similarly confirmed that the planned bilateral exercise with South Korea will take place shortly after the Winter Olympics, which underscores that Washington will continue to accelerate the successful pressure campaign that brought Pyongyang to the negotiation table, even if talks are limited to the Olympics only.
While the inter-Korean political theater is a positive development in itself, Washington’s likely next step is to ensure that both Beijing and Moscow fully comply with the UNSC resolutions imposed against the Stalinist regime and demonstrate that any deliberate attempt to help North Korea evade sanctions will not be tolerated.
Building on these positive developments, this week’s US-Canadian Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula demonstrates that the international community is embracing the Trump administration’s strategy toward Pyongyang.
As I argued in a recent Arab News column, Washington’s strategic objective is not a peace agreement with Pyongyang per se, but rather its de-nuclearization. The North’s objective is the opposite: A peace agreement with the US, but one that allows it to maintain its nuclear program.
During the US-Canada Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vancouver, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland declared, “The 20 nations represented here in Vancouver have agreed that we must work together to ensure that sanctions imposed on North Korea are strictly enforced… I do want to say clearly that we as a group harbor no hostility whatsoever toward North Korea or its people. We seek neither a regime change nor a collapse. What we do want is to resolve this crisis peacefully to achieve what is in our collective best interests, and that is security and stability on the Korean Peninsula. A North Korea that commits to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program will have a secure place in the international community. Until and unless that goal is reached, the international community will continue to take the necessary steps to stop North Korea’s nuclearization and aggression.”
In a summit co-hosted with Tillerson, it is clear that Freeland’s opening statement, in which she articulated that “we as a group harbor no hostility whatsoever toward North Korea or its people,” was coordinated in advance with Washington.
Her remarks provide a diplomatic opening for Pyongyang in which its officials could be provided immunity from human-rights-abuse penalties in exchange for the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program.
Whether or not the Trump-administration succeeds in breaking the decades-long logjam of failed US diplomatic engagement with North Korea, however, remains to be seen.

Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington.
Twitter: @SigiMideast
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