The Enigma of North Korea

May 24, 2018 Updated: May 25, 2018

Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill

Churchill’s famous quote is less applicable to Putin’s Moscow than it was to Stalin’s, but the national ability to puzzle observers is now characteristic of Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang.

For decades, North Korea was a hermetically sealed society with intelligence analysts reduced to the equivalent of ancient Greeks attempting to decipher Delphic oracles or Romans examining animal entrails seeking omens.

But suddenly, there is openness. Almost as if Kim Jong-un had hired a world class PR firm under instructions to project sunshine.

Gone are the creative slanging matches on the level of my “button” is bigger than your button. Or threats to annihilate everyone within range of his growing nuclear missile force. Matched by countervailing threats from Washington to lay waste to the DPRK if it sneezes.

Instead, we are on the verge of an historic effort by Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington to unlock the 70-year deadlock that has characterized the Korean peninsula since the end of World War II.

But not without twitches equivalent to diplomatic indigestion from Pyongyang.

It is important to realize one of the key elements of diplomacy: what is publicly known is the tip of the iceberg. Thus, virtually all of what has developed is the consequence of exchanges known but to the participants. And there is the ancillary observation: “Those that talk, don’t know. Those that know, don’t talk.”

We do not know, for example, anything regarding the two trips Kim made to Beijing (the only out-of-country excursions he has made). We know nothing substantive of the two visits Secretary of State Pompano held with Kim. Nor of the content of the sessions between Kim and ROK President Moon. Nor of the meeting between Kim and Japanese PM Abe.

If we wanted to hypothesize, however, we could put money on PRC leader Xi being a quiet central figure in the evolving scenario.

Nevertheless, we thought we thought we knew:

  • When the talks will be held (June 12);
  • Where the talks will be held (Singapore).

But President Trump is uncertain the talks will go ahead. If they do, here is an outline of what the positions of the different parties.

What Does Kim Want?

  • Recognition as a nuclear weapons state, implicitly equal to the United States;
  • Economic support (with no commitments on his part) to improve his population’s circumstances;
  • End of UN/U.S. sanctions, including missile testing constraints;
  • A Treaty ending the Korean War without cost to Pyongyang.
  • A denuclearized Korea (essentially meaning withdrawal of U.S. forces, end of military exercises, and implicit termination of “nuclear guarantees” for Seoul/Tokyo.)

What Does President Trump Want?

  • Complete elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile forces;
  • An end to Pyongyang’s threat to the ROK.

What Does ROK President Moon Want?

  • A regularized relationship with Pyongyang, e.g., a peace treaty and end of military threat from Pyongyang;
  • Joint economic development;
  • Relaxation of regional tension;
  • No regime change for Kim/Pyongyang but life without crises de jour;
  • Leverage from diplomatic success with NK to play in U.S.-PRC bilateral issues.

What Does Japanese PM Abe Want?

  • Reassurance of U.S. nuclear umbrella/guarantee;
  • Elimination of NK missiles threatening Japan;
  • Return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang to tutor NK espionage agents.

And Who Is Likely to Get What?

At this juncture, Kim appears a big winner. He has surrendered virtually nothing; returning three U.S. citizen pawns bought him good PR. The commitment to eliminate his nuclear test facility (which some believe was irreparably damaged during testing) is trivial. Kim has no need to test further; he has proven nuclear capability. And, after all, how often has Israel tested?

Moreover, he is sitting as an equal to the United States—without (apparently) concurrent participation by the ROK, a longtime U.S. desiderata.

Agreeing to a treaty to end the Korean War officially—even a statement to “begin to commence to start” (with detailed texts still to be drafted/negotiated) would enhance regional stability.

But other U.S.-desired takeaways, e.g., Kim’s commitment to eliminate all nuclear weapons and missiles is sun-rising-in-the-west unlikely.

Major agreements can start in two ways: a high-level joint announcement as a kick-start to negotiations (top down) or a painstaking line-by-line construction of document text for final agreement at high-level (bottom up).

Clearly, the June 12 session will be a “top down” opener for future discussions.

Nevertheless, it may well suffice to accord President Donald J Trump a Nobel Peace Prize (with Kim Jong-un standing beside him as a joint awardee).

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.