Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

Friday, March 09, 2018 1:00 am

Offer of talks reveals Kim's long game

David Von Drehle

Kim Jong Un is the chief thief of a family-run kleptocracy. Like his father and grandfather, he'll starve his own people to get what he wants. Torture and murder are preferred tools of statecraft. But he ain't stupid.

With the announcement of a summit between North and South Korean leaders as a possible prelude to talks with the Trump administration, Kim has maneuvered within view of a victory his forefathers only dreamed of: membership in the world community, on North Korea's terms. Many things can still go wrong. But his path forward seems pretty clear.

Step one is his rapidly advancing rapprochement with South Korea. The new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, favors better relations with North Korea. Kim responded by rushing to complete testing of his intercontinental ballistic missile in time for an ostentatious peace overture tied to the Winter Olympics.

That led, in turn, to a rare visit by emissaries of the South Korean president to Pyongyang. They returned to Seoul on Tuesday with plans for the late-April meeting - and what appears to be Kim's next gambit. According to Moon's national security director, the North Koreans offered a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for “heart-to-heart” talks with the United States. The regime also dangled the idea of giving up its nukes if North Korea's safety and sovereignty are guaranteed.

“We will see what happens,” President Donald Trump tweeted, with commendable caution.

But it's hard to see that Trump has much choice. The alternative to dangling carrots of safety and sovereignty is to wield the military stick, but this particular stick is in South Korea. Swinging it requires help from our allies on the front lines. Yet Seoul is not on board.

Thus Kim's thaw with South Korea will likely lead to new talks eventually. When that happens, at least three important facts will be different from the last time.

First, North Korea's nukes are a reality. Kim's negotiating position is much stronger. He can aim for a lasting settlement rather than temporary breathing room.

Second, Kim has in China a model for his own future. Xi Jinping, the Chinese premier, is attempting to prove economic liberalization can coexist with dictatorship.

Third, Kim has on the horizon a prospect for greater security than ever before. Vladimir Putin is champing at the bit to build a natural gas pipeline through North Korea to supply the energy-hungry dynamo to the south.

Putin was sidetracked by Kim's decision to weaponize his nuclear capability, and the international sanctions that followed. But if talks with the United States clear away the most severe restrictions, Putin's pipeline project will surely be resurrected. And the pipeline will constitute a major strategic Russian asset running right through the middle of North Korea – enough insurance against a U.S. attack that Kim could afford to mothball his own nukes to shelter under the Russian umbrella.

These facts point to a possible solution of the nuclear standoff. Kim's past outrages have put him in position potentially to turn the page.

On the other hand, the prospect of a normalized North Korea underlines the longer-term challenge for the United States. Would de-escalation erode the rationale for U.S. bases in the south?

China and Russia would certainly be happy to see us leave. And happiest of all would be Kim Jong Un – reckless, dangerous, ruthless Kim – the madman who just might be crazy like a fox.

David Von Drehle is a columnist for the Washington Post, where he writes about national affairs and politics from a home base in Kansas City.