The saying goes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. On the Korean Peninsula, the reverse seems to be true: The more things stay the same, the more they change. Six months ago, the discussion about the peninsula was whether it could avoid unilateral U.S. military action to stem North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Today the conversation has turned to whether Pyongyang's current diplomatic offensive offers hope for a nonmilitary resolution to the conflict, a lingering holdout from the Cold War, or whether it's just another of North Korea's attempts to buy time to secure the government with a viable nuclear deterrent. Having studied North Korea and the issues surrounding the peninsula for more than two decades, I am torn between optimism (however thin) that real change may finally be in the offing and the natural pessimism that derives from experience.
Stratfor's Second-Quarter Forecast laid out North Korea's outreach to the United States and South Korea to break the spiraling cycle of tension. Though a U.S.-North Korean breakthrough would be challenging, new circumstances mean it is not unimaginable.
Surprise delays, unexpected calls or trips back to North Korea for further instruction, and a general attempt to draw the other party into interminable side discussions and diplomatic minutiae to delay resolution characterize Pyongyang's typical negotiating style. A meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump will eliminate the utility of most of these tactics, offering a chance for more direct dialogue to resolve sticky issues. But it also may reinforce the idea that if the two leaders can't negotiate a way out of the conflict, then perhaps a diplomatic solution isn't possible and talk of a military solution to the United States' North Korea problem could return.
The Korean Peninsula issue has innumerable moving parts, so to sort things out it is perhaps best to focus on two core issues. The first is defining what North Korea really wants, not just in the near term, but its broader strategic goal. The second is assessing whether any changes in the current circumstances could provide space for an outcome different from that of previous attempts at dialogue. These efforts won't answer all the questions or bring clarity to the complexity of the Korean issue. But given the pace of change and the opportunity that awaits in the prospective summit between U.S. and North Korean leaders, they are a solid place to begin.
What North Korea Really Wants
North Korea is still a vehemently anti-colonial power, one that in its early history was a strong supporter of nonaligned nations, independence movements and insurgencies against imperialism. Independence — from China, the United States, Russia or Japan — is a critical component of the country's strategic intent. Independence of action retains a particular importance in its ideology. The government continues to emphasize the era of Japanese occupation and the division of the peninsula at the end of World War II, which it argues is unfair since the belligerent Japan stayed intact. But independence requires a strong military, a strong economy and a strong, unified population.
Since the Korean Peninsula's division in 1945, North Korea's leadership has had a singular strategic goal: to reunify Korea under Pyongyang's governance and direction. The goal is still the overriding factor behind North Korea's policies today, though the country's leaders now feel slightly less of a need for complete control of the peninsula. In its current iteration, the objective is to bring North and South Korea back together, allowing a central role for Pyongyang and an independent foreign policy that relies neither on China nor on the United States. North Korea often cites as its model Koguryo, an ancient Korean kingdom that at its peak reached well into northern China. Koguryo, however, never controlled the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, and a southern kingdom, with help from China, ultimately brought it to its end.
The compulsion for a unified Korea has grown stronger in recent years, as China's rise to become a major power and competitor to the United States has shifted the balance of power in East Asia. In response to China's growing influence, Japan is rapidly normalizing its military and working to pull out of more than two decades of economic malaise. And in between lies the Korean Peninsula, historically a bridge and battleground for the two regional powers since the 16th century. Divided, Korea is vulnerable to the competition and likely unable to secure its own interests. United, the peninsula may be able to withstand the pressures — or at least keep its interests safe. Unification, then, isn't just a long-term goal for Pyongyang anymore. It's a necessity to avoid falling into another Cold War-type scenario, in which North and South Korea serve as pawns for larger powers, with little control over their own direction and fate.
How Pyongyang Has Pursued Its Goals
North Korea has used several different strategies to try to achieve unification. The most overt was, of course, the Korean War. In the years just after the war, Pyongyang tried a combination of coercion and economic growth to inspire South Korea to break away from U.S. "occupation" and unify with it. North Korea's economy was the one that was growing rapidly then, albeit with help from China and the Soviet Union, while the South languished economically and socially under dictatorial rule. When the tides turned in the 1970s — Seoul launched a massive industrialization process and Pyongyang lost some of its economic support from abroad — North Korea resorted to militant tactics to try to destabilize the South. Seoul was dealing at the time with anti-government protests and a string of short-lived military or military-backed administrations.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, North Korea changed tack once again. The Soviet Union's waning power and China's economic opening and reform, as well as the Tiananmen Square protests, prompted Pyongyang to try outreach to the South, in tandem with continued military pressure. South Korea's government, meanwhile, was working to reshape relations with the North under President Roh Tae Woo's Nordpolitik policy. The two Koreas held several rounds of meetings. But when its Cold War allies began their own outreach to South Korea, leading the United Nations to recognize two distinct Koreas, Pyongyang abandoned its strategy in favor of a new one. This time it accelerated its nascent nuclear program and set the stage for the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, in which U.S. President Bill Clinton nearly authorized the use of force to destroy the North's emerging nuclear reprocessing and weapons technology. Pyongyang used the incident to force a resolution with the United States and South Korea, temporarily trading away its developing capabilities in exchange for economic integration and diplomatic outreach.
Unification isn't a long-term goal for Pyongyang anymore. It's a necessity to avoid falling into another Cold War-type scenario, in which North and South Korea serve as pawns for larger powers, with little control over their own direction and fate.
As North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994, it also planned the first inter-Korean summit in North Korea between the country's leader, Kim Il Sung, and South Korean President Kim Young Sam. The event's aim was to build on previous agreements to pave the way for the first steps of confederation between the two Koreas and to press the United States to finally replace the Armistice Agreement of 1953 with a formal peace treaty. Doing so would reduce the reason for U.S. forces on the peninsula and ease the Koreas' path to unification on their own terms. But Kim Il Sung's untimely death in the run-up to the summit left the initiative in shambles. Although his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, approved the Agreed Framework — a deal with the United States that temporarily suspended Pyongyang's nuclear program in exchange for economic and energy aid — his attention soon turned to consolidating his authority. North Korea's next major outreach didn't occur until after the launch of the Unha (Taepodong) rocket in 1998, the same year Kim Dae Jung, the founder of the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North, took over as South Korea's president.
The missile launch triggered another crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but it also led to a diplomatic breakthrough on Pyongyang's part. In 2000, Kim Jong Il visited China on his first overseas visit since taking power. North Korea opened normalization talks with Japan, hosted the first inter-Korean summit, received Russian President Vladimir Putin and welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang. It also opened diplomatic relations with Australia, Italy, the Philippines and the United Kingdom, and with Canada, Germany and New Zealand the following year. Pyongyang had perfected the use of a crisis to open up diplomatic avenues.
The opening, however, was short-lived. In January 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush put Pyongyang on the defensive by including North Korea in the so-called axis of evil. The North Korean government, in turn, doubled down on its strategy of creating small calamities to secure short-term gains.
At the time, its nuclear and missile program remained a tradeable asset, something North Korea was not eager to complete for fear of U.S. military action in the final phases. The primary tool for containing Pyongyang was the six-party talks, which began in 2003 as China worked to retain its influence over the issue. Before the decade was over, though, North Korea had changed its view of the nuclear and missile program. Kim Jong Il, having suffered a stroke, saw the need to finally plan for his transition from power and rushed to finalize the program before handing the reins off to his son, Kim Jong Un. That way, the young leader would begin his tenure with a strong hand. When the transition took place in 2011, the first lesson the new North Korean administration absorbed was that of Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi died in U.S.-backed fighting despite agreeing to give up his weapons of mass destruction program in a deal with the United States. From that point on, the North strove to complete a viable nuclear deterrent and to ease its political dependence on China in hopes of returning to the international negotiating not as a subordinate to Beijing's interests, but as an equal.
Heading Back to the Table
Today, North Korea is once again positioning itself for a diplomatic breakout. The meeting in China, the summits planned with South Korea and with the United States, the reports of Japan and Russia pursuing similar summits — all signs suggest that Pyongyang is coming back to the table more confident in its own position. And now, at least according to China and South Korea, it has offered to end its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees. The guarantees probably include, as they have in the past, a peace accord with the United States to replace the armistice and discussions about the disposition of U.S. forces on the peninsula. Pyongyang, after all, is still looking for a path to unification in which the United States leaves, China is not dominant and the two Koreas can sort out a path forward on their own. It's certainly not an easy goal, and questions remain about the reliability of North Korea's promises. Even so, the circumstances today are different from those of past negotiations. That means the outcome may be different, too.
The United States continues to push for North Korea's complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, a lofty goal that will be nearly impossible to ensure, particularly given the track record of deals between Washington and Pyongyang. And few expect North Korea, after accepting the economic and political costs of developing its nuclear deterrent, to simply give it up and walk away. Furthermore, its strategic goal hasn't changed. The government's desire to maintain control or influence in divided or united Korea, its concern with the United States' military might, its distrust of China's power and its anxiety at the thought of Japan's regional resurgence are all alive and well.
What's Different This Time
Yet several factors put the upcoming round of negotiations in a different light. For one thing, North Korea showed China that it could arrange a direct summit with the U.S. president without Beijing's help. The talks haven't happened yet, and Pyongyang has been cautious about officially announcing even the chance of the meeting, but the mere prospect represents a major step forward for Pyongyang in its quest to enter talks as an equal party. For another, the political situation has changed in each of the four key countries involved in the North Korea issue.
Pyongyang sees in the current U.S. president, for example, a political outsider willing to take actions beyond those normally prescribed for top U.S. political figures. Trump's acceptance of a meeting with Kim Jong Un without the usual precursor discussions to work out a clear strategy is itself a sign to North Korea's leaders that their read may be accurate. He hasn't shied away from threatening war on the Korean Peninsula, either; if anyone could come out of direct talks with unexpected results, it's Trump.
In South Korea, after two consecutive conservative presidents — one impeached, the other under investigation — a progressive leader is back in office. The country's progressive leaders traditionally have been more inclined to ease relations with the North. The same is true of President Moon Jae In, all the more so because of the heightened political risk Seoul experienced as the United States threatened war on the peninsula and China responded to anti-missile system deployments in South Korea with unofficial economic punishments. Seoul supports anything that will alleviate the immediate tensions.
Beijing, likewise, has a new focus under President Xi Jinping, one that includes a major overhaul of the domestic economy and all its attendant social dislocations. China's role on the global stage is also expanding because of its far-reaching economic ties and dependencies. While Beijing once saw a benefit to North Korea's antics, an opportunity to use its sway over the country's government to ease economic strife with the United States, China has lost much of its ability to influence Pyongyang's behavior. It also has reconsidered its view of North Korea as a strategic buffer. Beijing still prefers the idea of a pliant North to that of a unified Korea, but warmer ties between Pyongyang and Seoul may actually serve China's purposes, enabling it to expand its economic and infrastructure networks across the whole peninsula.
Pyongyang sees in the current U.S. president a political outsider willing to take actions beyond those normally prescribed for top U.S. political figures.
The Third Generation
But it is in North Korea that things may have changed the most. Kim Jong Un has steadily removed the members of his country's leadership with the closest ties to China, reasserting North Korea's independence of action. In addition, he represents a new generation of leadership, as a younger leader with a very different perspective on history and the future from those of his father and grandfather. The first generation fought Japan and the United States. They were the true revolutionaries, the ones who fought for Korean independence, and as such they earned their right to shape North Korea's future, be it autonomy or unification. The second generation, on the other hand, rose to power thanks more to their parents than to their actions or abilities. Most got their training in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union or China, if they trained abroad at all, and have little insight into modern economics. Many had close links to the most egregious era of North Korean terrorism as well. In a confederated or unified Korea, the second generation would stand to lose the most. They offer little and carry with them the baggage of the past.
Their children make up the third generation, which is slowly moving into the ranks of power. Members of this group of leaders have a much better grasp of the modern world and its economies, often having trained from a young age in Western Europe. And because they lack strong ties to North Korea's militant history, they may have a better shot at retaining positions of influence in a unified Korea. As this generation rises to power in North Korea, the resistance to a modified form of unification is starting to wane, and the desire for the kinds of economic breakthroughs that more connection to the outside world would enable is increasing. Even Cuba had a brief opening with the United States, leaving North Korea as the anachronistic holdout of the Cold War system. Although these factors don't guarantee a different outcome for the next U.S.-North Korea dialogue, they do set a different stage for it.
It's hard to be optimistic about the upcoming North Korea talks. But assuming that what has happened before is bound to happen again is a weak analytical approach. The past is a guide, not a straitjacket. It does not determine the future but only provides a lens through which to distinguish the similarities and differences in the present. Washington and Pyongyang have a long history of failed agreements between them. Still, the differences in circumstances this time around, however slim, may offer a chance for different results. Without some change, we'll probably find ourselves back on the path to containment, if not on a course toward military action to end the North Korean nuclear and missile program once and for all.