NIIGATA – When Kim Jong Un boarded his train in Hanoi to return to North Korea, he was probably asking himself the same question the world was: What comes next?
Whatever the North Korean leader may have been thinking on his long train ride back to Pyongyang, the actions his regime has taken since do not signal an immediate push to get back to the negotiating table. Instead, we have seen the following from North Korea: construction activity at the Sohae satellite launch facility, increased diplomatic activity with Russia and skipping inter-Korean meetings.
Taken in aggregate, this posturing signals North Korea’s strategy following “no agreement” in Hanoi. It portends increased urgency among U.S. and South Korean decision-makers and highlights the existence of an alternative for Kim that could undermine what remains of the international community’s maximum pressure campaign.
There are three reasons to believe that Kim prefers to be at the negotiating table. First is his break in precedent for type and location of engagement. Looking at the major North Korean negotiations related to security issues since Kim first took power, they have been in Beijing, Panmunjom or Pyongyang (Panmunjom being the only truly neutral ground out of the three). Kim has yet to travel to non-neutral ground, but the fact that he was willing to fly all the way to Singapore and to endure 60 hours by train to Hanoi at the risk of no agreement shows that he is willing to push the boundaries of diplomacy further than his predecessors.
Second is the sequencing of his summits. Kim showed deference to his neighbor and patron by traveling to China multiple times, but beyond that, he has prioritized multiple meetings with South Korea and the United States before meetings with other traditional partners — namely, Russia.
Finally, there are the purges. Thae Yong Ho, a prominent defector and former member of North Korea’s ruling elite, described Kim as “merciless” for taking the “unprecedented” action of purging not just swaths of military and party elites, but family members, too. As merciless as it is, the function of such action is to cement regime survival and, by extension, reduce the constraints on the young dictator’s decision-making power and flexibility.
Despite Kim’s apparent preference for negotiating with the U.S. and South Korea, there are two primary objectives underwriting his diplomatic strategy that are now forcing his hand. The first is that North Korea needs sanctions relief. The 2016-2017 sanctions regimes were the primary target for North Korean negotiators in Hanoi, and myriad reports reinforce the point that sanctions continue to have a notable impact on the country despite North Korea’s attempts to work around them. Sanctions impact North Korean diplomacy by pressuring Kim to respond, but they also reduce how long he can stay this course; after all, the country can only hold out at the negotiating table for so long while sanctions deplete the Kim regime’s coffers. In that way, pressure is good if North Korea does not have viable alternatives outside the negotiating table, but alternatives that do exist — even bad ones — can become attractive in desperation.
Beyond sanctions relief, Kim’s main interest is regime survival. The purges gave Kim more breathing room to pursue diplomacy with the U.S. and South Korea rather than his country’s traditional partners, but the more time that passes without results, the stronger that anti-rapprochement voices inside North Korea become. Meanwhile, Cheollima Civil Defense, a rogue group bent on overthrowing the Kim regime, claimed responsibility on a raid that took place on the North Korean Embassy in Spain. Whether or not the claim is true, the optics of the organization and its purported activities are problematic for Kim.
With these factors in mind, the North Korean government basically had four options after Hanoi: (1) engage at the working level with South Korean and U.S. negotiators to get diplomacy back on track; (2) ratchet up pressure to generate urgency from South Korea and the U.S. to break the impasse; (3) ask China for help; and (4) ask Russia for help.
Since then, North Korean officials have ghosted working-level meetings and vacated liaison offices. There has been work at the Sohae satellite launch facility (space launches being subject to U.N. sanctions). Kim bypassed Beijing on his way back to North Korea, but may now be heading to Moscow for his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of this suggests that Kim is pursuing a combination of options two and four. That is, North Korea seeks to increase diplomatic urgency from the U.S. and South Korea, while achieving workarounds on sanctions and garnering diplomatic support from Russia.
For any world leader, courting Russia is a dangerous course of action. Putin has cemented his place as the “Great Disruptor” in world affairs. He will exploit a desperate Kim (not immediately, but down the road) while obstructing the efforts of the international community to stabilize the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. The fact that Kim has not traveled to Russia up to now suggests that he knows the Putin option stinks, but the walls are starting to close in on him.
The question now is how do the U.S. and South Korea respond?
Keeping Kim out of Putin’s pocket demands immediate action to get North Korea back to the negotiating table. This past Friday’s sequence of events with the U.S. Treasury department announcing one new set of sanctions and U.S. President Donald Trump withdrawing from a second set served as a signal to North Korea. However, it lacked the “on-the-nose” messaging on off-ramps (i.e., options for sanctions relief) that is so important. Dropping the “denuke or bust” mantra in the media would also message the necessary flexibility for negotiations.
Ultimately, whatever actions the U.S. and South Korea take, they should recognize that North Korea has alternatives to negotiation that it is willing to pursue, even if they are not good ones. From here, the objective for U.S. and South Korean policymakers should be recognizing the constraints on the young leader and navigating Kim back to the table where he prefers to be.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and a Ph.D. candidate at the International University of Japan. Previously, he was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan.