The U.S. and South Korea’s joint military exercises are reportedly not sitting well with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
As North Korea threatens to nix Kim Jong Un’s meeting with President Trump next month, the question of what Kim wants takes center stage.
Trump said last week that “great things could happen for North Korea” if the talks planned for June 12 in Singapore lead to the isolated nation dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Trump’s message implied that sanctions could be lifted, which would allow business relations between the North and United States for the first time.
Last month’s meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in ended with an optimistic pledge to seek peace on the Korean Peninsula and rekindle economic and cultural exchanges.
But the North apparently seeks more than a deal on nuclear weapons or a peace treaty. Here’s what Kim wants:
U.S. security assurances
Kim’s spokesman said Wednesday that North Korea is not interested in giving up its nuclear program without a corresponding change in the U.S. military posture.
North Korea is not interested in “unilateral nuclear abandonment,” Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement, according to North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
He accused the White House and State Department of attempting to turn North Korea into another Libya by insisting on “abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterward.”
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi relinquished his nuclear weapons development program in return for normalized relations with the United States, but he was later deposed in a rebellion supported by NATO.
The latest issue comes as North Korea canceled a high-level meeting with South Korean officials scheduled for Wednesday, because of a joint military exercise with the United States and South Korea that the North views as a threat.
KCNA noted that the joint military exercise would employ B-52 strategic bombers and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, both nuclear capable weapons in the U.S. arsenal — as a “deliberate military provocation” that threatens the spirit of peace.
North Korea’s past agreements and statements show Kim wants normalized relations with the United States. “An end to U.S. enmity remains Kim Jong Un’s aim just as it was his grandfather’s and father’s for the past 30 years,” said Leon Sigal, author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.
Kim may be willing to denuclearize and even take steps to disarm, if Trump commits to end hostile relations with North Korea and takes action to show the U.S. means it, Sigal wrote in March in 38 North, an independent online journal that provides analysis of North Korea.
A problem for U.S. leaders has been that North Korea’s totalitarian government is cruel to its people and aggressive toward its neighbors that conducting normal trade would be politically unappetizing.
In his New Year’s speech, Kim said having nuclear weapons to deter what he sees as a U.S. threat means his poor country was ready to shift to economic development.
Past negotiations with the U.S. also focused on economic benefits. The U.S. has offered to arrange energy assistance from petroleum producers, build two light-water nuclear reactors that would be difficult to use for producing weapons, provide food assistance and lift sanctions.
April’s meeting of the rival Korean leaders also ended with the promise of economic assistance. Moon pledged to connect and modernize railroad lines and roads.
It’s unclear how the South can make do on that pledge without running afoul of United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said before his visit to North Korea last week that the U.S. would not provide any of those benefits until after the North completely dismantled its nuclear program.
‘Action for action’
North Korea has long sought incremental economic and diplomatic benefits for every action that it takes toward limiting its nuclear program.
In 2005, North Korea committed to “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner,” and agreed with the U.S. China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to coordinate its obligations with rewards “in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action.’”
That approach failed, however, and North Korea resumed and later accelerated its development of nuclear weapons.
Despite Trump officials’ insistence that it would reject the “action for action” approach, the North’s Vice Foreign Minister’s comments on Wednesday show that Kim still favors getting incremental rewards for incremental steps.
North Korea has made past agreements while advancing its nuclear program, and can be expected to be doing the same now, said Richard Fisher, a Korea and China analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
While Kim negotiates and vacillates about meeting with Trump, his engineers are likely working around the clock to perfect a weapon that can hit the U.S. mainland, said Fisher, who testifies about China’s military expansion Thursday before the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
“They tested two ICBMS (intercontinental ballistic missiles) capable of reaching the United States,” Fisher said. “They have not yet demonstrated that the missile could carry a warhead that would survive re-entry with some level of accuracy. I’m sure they’re working day and night to develop a viable warhead.”
Fisher added that when the North Koreans end these negotiations, “we can expect in very short order they will test their ICBMs with a viable warhead,” he said.
Respect from China
Kim’s negotiations with Trump and South Korea’s President Moon “allowed this megalomaniac leader to seem reasonable on the world stage,” and advanced China’s goal of reducing the U.S. influence in northeast Asia, Fisher said.
Both outcomes benefit Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Prior to these negotiations, Kim Jong Un was seen as a missile rattling rocket boy threat to the world. Xi couldn’t embrace him,” Fisher said. “Now that the negotiations have gone as far as they have, Xi can embrace this young leader and solidify their already very close cooperation.”
The major change in U.S. military posture that Kim seeks is also a goal of China’s, and includes an end to the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, he said.
“This has been a long standing Chinese goal as well as the top North Korean diplomatic goal since the 1950s, he said. “They want the Americans off the Korean Peninsula. They want full range and freedom to intimidate South Korea even more and to isolate Japan. It’s all part of a larger goal of forcing American power back to Hawaii and California.”
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