Why did Kim Jong-Un suddenly become so agreeable? After long years of self-reclusion, Kim suddenly withdrew his dogged insistence on wielding nuclear weapons and partially yielded to the demands of the U.S. and the global community by mentioning that he had intentions to renunciate nuclear capabilities.
Such unexpected change in stance led many to think that U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s maximum pressure strategy had finally forced this tyrant to capitulate. However, as Kim Jeong-Un and his father Kim Jong-Il had repeatedly mentioned, denuclearization was a dying injunction from their predecessors. Although such rhetoric may only be a way to save face, North Korea’s sudden shift in stance seems to connote more than just capitulation.
South Korea’s GDP is now roughly 50 times that of North Korea’s. Finding a balance economically seems unrealistic for the latter. Therefore, North Korea’s nuclear agenda was a rational choice to be leveled by assuming an upper hand militarily with the help of nuclear weapons.
Of course, holding nuclear capabilities may not guarantee the regime’s survival without international recognition as the imposed sanctions may potentially further destabilize an already wobbly government. Yet, it may work as an effective diplomatic card.
North Korea was aware – since China parted from the path of socialism to join the global community – that Beijing could not provide them with a regime guarantee. China repeatedly entreated North Korea to follow its path into capitalism while giving up the nuclear agenda.
However, China’s regime guarantee was for the state, not for the Kim dynasty. China would be more than capable of guaranteeing the survival of North Korea under the consent of Kim, but it would not be in the interests of China to keep Kim in power if he was disagreeable. Holding nuclear capabilities, however, would provide Kim with more autonomy and insurance for the dynasty.
When North Korea was considered a de facto nuclear power without the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the United States blinked but did not react as proactively as it is doing now. North Korea now holds ICBMs which may soon be able to reach America, and now Pyongyang has successfully caught the attention of the U.S. – unprecedented sanctions have been imposed on almost every little business North Korea has.
Attaining the insurance was a difficult journey, but with it, along with the U.S. attention, Kim is now making bigger bargains. Repeated nuclear threats to the U.S. from North Korea was simply a way to bring the U.S. into the bargaining table and to achieve regime guarantee from both Beijing and Washington.
Many anti-American comments North Korea had made took place to draw U.S. attention and create an image of a considerable amount of threat so that Washington would concede and offer regime guarantee, aid, and other concessions in exchange for nuclear renunciation and, finally, becoming pro-American.
Nevertheless, going excessively pro-American and excluding China would ring alarm bells in Beijing as Chinese influence in the northern half of the peninsula could be replaced by a potential adversary, or an actual adversary considering the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. Evidently, Chinese leader Xi Jinping hastily invited Kim to Beijing where he warmly welcomed him to avoid ostracization.
North Korea is small. Not only geographically but also economically. Such a country is now making bargains with the world’s two biggest nations competing to exert more influence.
North Korea is different from other states, however, in that it holds nuclear capabilities. Mentioning the predecessors’ dying injunctions may have been a way to save face, but if not, North Korea’s nuclear agenda might have really been a way of going anti-American to go pro-American.