The right response to Pyongyang’s shrewd diplomacy

Diplomatic rapprochement between South and North Korea continues. The two countries have announced that their two leaders will hold a third summit sometime in September. Inter-Korean dialogue is important, but a widening gap between that diplomacy and talks over North Korea’s denuclearization is worrisome and dangerous. One of Pyongyang’s most important goals is splitting the coalition of governments that has imposed maximum pressure against the North; Seoul’s defection would be a vital win for the North.

North Korea has three overarching diplomatic objectives: securing international recognition of its regime’s legitimacy; engaging in negotiations over its nuclear weapons capability that would end with acknowledgment of its right to possess those weapons; and fracturing the international coalition that demands dismantlement of those weapons. It is well on its way to achieving all three.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic charm offensive won him a meeting with a sitting U.S. president, an accomplishment that eluded both his father and grandfather. In exchange, he made vague promises about denuclearization and has stiff-armed subsequent U.S. demands for tangible, irreversible efforts toward that goal. Kim has restored frayed ties with China, a move that gives him an invaluable ally as he fends off international pressure to take those concrete steps. He has also established a relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that has a momentum all its own. The inter-Korean dialogue seeks peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula — a worthy goal, but one that has very different meanings for Seoul, Pyongyang and other capitals.

Progressives in South Korea — including the Moon administration — seek to engage Pyongyang, believing that building trust and confidence between the two Koreas is the essential first step in reducing tensions that would allow the North to give up its nuclear arsenal. They reason that if North Korea did not feel threatened, it would not need to be a nuclear-armed, militarized state. They are thus prepared to do many things to build trust with the North — provide economic assistance, for example — that other countries, such as Japan, believe should only follow concrete steps by Pyongyang toward nuclear disarmament.

This is much more than a debate about sequencing or who goes first. The progressive position assumes that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a means to an end — regime security and survival — rather than an end in themselves. If Pyongyang believes that it must have a nuclear arsenal and has no intention of giving it up except under pressure, then the provision of economic aid makes denuclearization less, not more, likely.

History, however, teaches that Pyongyang sees its nuclear capability as an end, rather than a means. North Korea’s violation of all previous nuclear agreements — and the list is long — is proof. The events of this year give no reason to believe that Kim’s thinking has changed.

North Korea has avidly pursued diplomacy with governments that are sympathetic to its position, such as those in Seoul and Beijing. It has courted U.S. President Donald Trump, who seems more interested in securing headlines than denuclearization. U.S. nuclear negotiators have been consistently rebuffed since the historic Singapore summit in June between Trump and Kim that yielded vague promises to dismantle the North’s nuclear arsenal.

While North Korea demolished a nuclear test site and a missile testing facility, intelligence reports indicate that it has also stepped up production at nuclear and missile facilities elsewhere in the country. North Korean media outlets denounce U.S. negotiators who seek to put flesh on the bones of Kim’s flaccid promises to denuclearize. Last week, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho pledged that his country would always preserve its nuclear science, meaning that it would retain its capacity to make nuclear weapons. That is not disarmament.

The North is paying no price for its recalcitrance, however. South and North Korea are pushing ahead with economic cooperation projects that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to pressure the North to honor its pledges. A third summit between the two Korean leaders threatens to deepen the divide between South Korea and other governments that are ready to pressure the North to denuclearize.

Japan is a bystander to all this. North Korea has shown no interest in summit diplomacy with Tokyo, restricting its contacts to lower-level diplomats. Pyongyang sees no need to address Japan’s chief concern, the fate of individuals kidnapped by North Korea.

Japan has an equally compelling interest in Pyongyang’s denuclearization, but there is little leverage that Tokyo can use to advance that objective. Japan is reduced to insisting on continued pressure and backstopping international demands that North Korea honor its promises.

Given the North Korean belief that ignoring Tokyo while courting Seoul and Washington is a shrewd diplomatic tactic, Japan must prepare to become a target of North Korean invective if sentiment hardens against Pyongyang and the Kim government looks for scapegoats.

Equally important is ensuring that Pyongyang does not drive a wedge between Tokyo and Seoul as part of that effort.