Behind North Korea’s charm offensive

By Khang Vu

Earlier this month, Secretary Mike Pompeo made a trip to North Korea to hammer out the details of the joint agreement signed at Singapore between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un. Contrary to a sense of progress at the Singapore summit, this time North Korea publicly  criticized the U.S. demand for denuclearization despite Pompeo’s positive assessment of North Korean intentions after the meeting. Even though the prospect of North Korea giving up its nukes are now dim after Pompeo’s trip, South Korean president Moon Jae-in is still determined to preserve the peace momentum by declaring that North Korea is seeking to build long-term trust with Washington. Pyongyang’s newest unfriendly moves, switching from cooperation to antagonism within a month, merit close attention since they reflect a pattern of North Korea’s many decoupling tactics towards Washington and Seoul.

Throughout its existence, North Korea has always been seeking to undermine the U.S.-South Korea alliance by both coercive and accommodating means. Pyongyang’s wedging strategy is based on the key differences in how the South Korean liberal and conservative devise their North Korea policy. The South Korean left, which embraces engagement with North Korea due to shared ethnicity, often receive friendly treatments from Pyongyang; while the South Korean right, for reasons regarding ideological confrontation, tend to clash with Pyongyang. As a result of such variations, North Korea adjusts its decoupling tactics according to changes in South Korean politics to widen the differences in how Washington and Seoul perceive the North Korean threat.

Indeed, a brief history of North Korea’s diplomacy illustrates how Pyongyang’s decoupling tactic plays out. During the Sunshine years under President Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (1998–2007), North Korea accommodated the South and emphasized the two Koreas’ shared interest in joint economic development and preserving regional security. South Korean liberals hoped to transform the North through engagement, but their efforts only helped North Korea get away with the collapse of the Agreed Framework while turning Seoul and Washington against one another. President Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric seriously clashed with Kim and Roh’s friendly North Korea policy, which resulted in a deadlock over North Korea’s denuclearization policy and intra-alliance tensions.

Under the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations (2007-2017), North Korea switched from accommodation to coercion by sinking a South Korean corvette and carrying out a series of nuclear and missile tests with an aim to complicate how the United States and South Korea would respond to North Korea’s provocations and raise entrapment fears in the United States about North Korea’s acquisition of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology further raises a decoupling fear in Seoul and Washington and brings back the conventional dilemma: is Washington willing to trade Los Angeles for Seoul in a nuclear exchange with North Korea? Even though Seoul and Washington find a common ground over their respective North Korea policy (strategic patience) during this period, North Korea’s ability to strike the South and U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam prevented the two allies from making any meaningful progress over denuclearization and allowed Pyongyang to perfect nuclear and missile technologies under the shadow of its ICBMs. North Korea’s overall wedging strategy, consisting of both accommodation and coercion, thus constitutes the main rationale behind Pyongyang’s provocations and charm offensive.

Turning to the liberal Moon administration, North Korea is now switching back to accommodation like it did during the Sunshine years. Pyongyang’s sudden change in tone in Kim’s New Year’s Address and its renewed interest in inter-Korean exchanges and joint economic projects illustrate the North’s calculation to turn Moon’s friendly gestures against Trump’s “fire and fury.” North Korea understands that as long as it can keep South Korea invested in the peace momentum, the United States cannot break out of the diplomatic process, which potentially will result in a deadlock in the two allies’ denuclearization agenda in the long run. The fact that Pyongyang is still producing nuclear fuel, expanding its missile-manufacturing plant, and focusing more on solid-fuel ballistic missile technology under the shadow of North-South engagement and variations in the United States and South Korea’s North Korea policies illustrates a continuity in Pyongyang’s wedging strategy. In this context, it is not hard to understand why North Korea can drag its feet on the denuclearization front without any fear of collapse in talks with the United States.

South Korea and the United States need to recognize this pattern in North Korea’s policy towards the alliance in order to avoid making wrong assumptions about North Korea’s sincerity to denuclearize. North Korea will never totally abandon the capability to blackmail South Korea and attack continental United States since such a capability constitutes the coercion side of its wedging strategy. In order to keep Seoul and Washington guessing its true intentions, Pyongyang needs to be able to calibrate between accommodation and coercion whenever there is a change of government in the Blue House.

Even though the prospect of denuclearization is not promising, this assessment does not call for a preventive counterforce strike on North Korea. North Korea’s quest for a survivable nuclear arsenal aims at regime stability rather than a desire to reunify the Korean Peninsula on its terms. In this situation, Washington should accept a mutual deterrence relationship with Pyongyang and seeks to engage in talks to limit North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at an acceptable cost. Furthermore, the United States and South Korea need to coordinate their North Korea policy in order to find a common voice over denuclearization and economic engagement matters. Differences in how Washington and Seoul manage and perceive the North Korean threat will allow Pyongyang to develop its nuclear arsenal free of sanctions and punishments. Overall, it is highly important for the United States and South Korea to align their priorities in the face of North Korea’s wedging strategy before any talks with Pyongyang can yield any meaningful outcomes.