Talks With North Korea a Farce, Say Experts

January 9, 2018 Updated: January 10, 2018

News Analysis

North Korea’s new willingness to hold talks with South Korea is either a ploy to buy time or hold off a possible U.S. invasion—or both—according to two experts.

Much has been made of North Korea’s sudden willingness to talk to South Korea. Some commentators are calling it a diplomatic breakthrough. Meanwhile, the participation of two North Korean figure skaters in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has been framed by some as a turning point for the world’s most oppressive regime.

But any hopes that North Korea’s current olive branch signals a meaningful change on the Korean Peninsula is misplaced, according to Rick Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Fisher believes that during the current crisis, North Korea has aligned the entire world against it, with only two strained allies—China and Russia—willing to offer credible support.

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Trucks wait in the Chinese border city of Dandong, in China’s northeast Liaoning Province, before crossing the Friendship Bridge to the North Korean town of Sinuiju on Sept. 5, 2017. China remains North Korea’s economic lifeline. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

With nowhere left to turn, and sanctions now taking a fiercer hold on the North Korean economy, Kim Jong Un’s communist regime is also facing a credible threat of military force from the new American administration.

North Korea can’t address that threat through force, so Kim’s regime is trying a different approach.

“They think they can deflate some of the growing American-led consensus for some kind of action against them by making nice with the South,” said Fisher.

For South Korea, the memory of a devastating war and the possibility of another are enough to want to preserve the hope that North Korea could be sincere.

But Kim has specifically said his nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are intended for the United States, making any such optimism dangerously reckless.

Fisher says North Korea will continue building toward a nuclear missile threat to the world and especially the United States.

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North Korea’s Hwasong-15 ICBM reached an altitude of about 2,780 miles and flew 590 miles during its 53-minute flight on Nov. 29, 2017. (REUTERS/KCNA)

The current diplomatic overture is a tactical retreat of sorts, a way to ease the pressure that is building to a dangerous possibility that North Korea doesn’t want to face.

“The North Koreans want to prick the bubble of a gathering international consensus led by the United States that if necessary, military action must be taken against North Korea,” he said.

Fisher says that North Korea hopes to dilute that consensus by opening a dialogue. That gives the regime time, which is about the only thing Kim needs as much as money.

Fisher holds with other intelligence assessments that North Korea is a year away from being able to fully exploit their current nuclear and missile programs, combining them to create a nuclear ICBM capable of delivering a warhead to a target on the ground.  

The Kim regime also needs time to finish building a larger submarine as well as perfect a submarine-launched missile that could pose a threat to Japan.

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and the author of the recent book “Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order,” thinks North Korea is buying, or rather bribing for, time.

“From the American point of view, past negotiations with North Korea have accomplished nothing. From the North Korean point of view, however, they have accomplished precisely what they were intended to,” Mosher said. “They have bought North Korea the time and over a billion dollars in American aid from the Clinton and Bush administrations.”

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North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally to celebrate the North’s declaration on Nov. 29, 2017, it had achieved full nuclear statehood, on Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on Dec. 1, 2017. (KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Now the regime is entering the stage where it can pair its missile and nuclear weapons programs together, Mosher says. It just needs more time and perhaps some money, neither of which are possible to obtain through force or further provocations. With no other option available, North Korea has to pull out its talk card.

And there is no country as ready and willing to talk to North Korea as South Korea. While Japan and the United States are both calling for a hard line on the Kim regime, South Korea remains more open and optimistic.

“The sanctions are starting to bite, and Kim Jong Un is reaching out to the weakest link of the U.S.–Japan and U.S.–South Korean alliances, which is South Korea,” he said.

Mosher agrees with Fisher that South Korea is moved by its natural sympathy for average North Koreans, people traumatized by the current regime. There is also the possibility that North Korean artillery could claim millions of lives in South Korea.

But while those sentiments may urge South Korea to make every possible effort at a diplomatic solution, Mosher says that all the while, North Korea will continue to feverishly build missiles and nuclear weapons.

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 5, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the defense detachment on Jangjae Islet and the Hero Defense Detachment on Mu Islet located in the southernmost part of the waters off the southwest front. (AFP/Getty Images)
This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 5, 2017, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the defense detachment on Jangjae Islet. (AFP/Getty Images)

“The key to solving the North Korean dilemma will not be found in negotiations between North and South Korea, but in pressure by the U.S. on North Korea’s ‘sponsor,’ China,” Mosher said. “As long as Kim Jong Un is convinced that he enjoys China’s quiet support, he has absolutely no reason to change his behavior.”

That is doubly so as North Korea develops ICBMs capable of carrying the miniaturized nuclear warheads that the Kim regime is believed to already possess.

Mosher believes that President Donald Trump’s forceful approach has given Kim pause and slowed North Korea missile tests.

But for a more lasting change, the United States needs to break the China–North Korea alliance. For China, North Korea is a boogeyman perfectly designed to distract the United States and waste U.S. military resources, Fisher says.

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North Korean soldiers on the border with South Korea on Nov. 27, 2017. (Korea Pool/Getty Images)

And should war break out, the United States would use up significant military and financial power, leaving it weakened and less able to defend its ally, Taiwan, from an attack by China. Therefore, another Korean war could potentially accelerate China’s timeline for conquering Taiwan, Fisher says.

In Fisher’s view, the best solution to all of these problems is to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons in Asia, which the Bush administration withdrew during earlier efforts to negotiate North Korea away from developing nuclear weapons.

With Bush’s withdrawal approach clearly a failure, tactical nuclear weapons on Kim’s doorstep would do much to convince Kim, and China, that war is in no one’s best interest.