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Is North Korea just buying time?

September 19, 2018

North Korea has agreed to take big steps toward denuclearization and rapprochement with the South. But experts remain skeptical about whether these promises will result in any real change on the ground.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) signing a guest book as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) stands
Image: Getty Images/Pyeongyang Press Corps

Kim Jong Un rolled out the red carpet in Pyongyang on Wednesday for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and there even appeared to be a degree of progress made on North Korea's denuclearization.

Yet, despite all the positive indicators, analysts still believe that Kim ultimately intends to keep Pyongyang's nuclear deterrent because the survival of his regime depends on it.

Moon arrived in Pyongyang Tuesday morning, and the first day of the closely watched summit was largely spent in symbolic gestures of friendship and inter-Korean fraternity.

Read more: South and North Korean leaders meet amid denuclearization doubts 

Kim met Moon at Pyongyang airport, and the two men drove into the city in an open-top Mercedes car, cheered by tens of thousands of North Koreans waving plastic flowers.

The leaders reportedly spent two hours in preliminary discussions, during which Kim told his visitor that he anticipates progress in a new round of talks with the United States.

'Trust and friendship'                        

Moon used the occasion to declare that a sense of "trust and friendship" has evolved between the leaders and that they are committed to creating "a future that nobody has experienced."

In a joint press conference held after their talks on Wednesday, Moon and Kim announced a number of agreements, which include what the North claims are significant steps toward the denuclearization that Washington has demanded before international sanctions can be lifted.

Read more: Opinion: No peace for Korea

Kim has agreed to "permanently" shut down the Dongchang-ri missile engine testing facility, a process that will be verified by international monitors. There was also a commitment to remove all nuclear weapons and threats from the Korean Peninsula. In a joint declaration, the North also said it would take "additional steps, such as the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, should the United States take corresponding measures."

The initial reaction from US President Donald Trump, who commented in a series of tweets, appeared positive, and he expressed support for a proposal for the two Koreas to jointly host the 2032 Olympic Games.

Though the feeling in South Korea was generally positive that the talks appeared to have made progress on denuclearization, skepticism remains as to whether Kim will give up his ultimate military deterrent. After all, turning North Korea into a nuclear weapons power took a great deal of time and resources. 

Nordkorea - Korea-Gipfel in Pjöngjang: Kim Jong Un trifft Moon Jae-In
Moon and Kim were greeted by crowds in Pyongyang on TuesdayImage: Getty Images/Pyeongyang Press Corps

Kim is 'hard to believe'

"Of course we still have concerns," Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, told DW.

"Moon has put a great deal of time and effort into economic cooperation with the North and humanitarian issues, but the US is insisting on knowing all about the North's nuclear weapons, including what they have and where it is stored," she said.

Ahn's contacts in the US are telling her that no matter what the North promises to do with its nuclear weapons, the sanctions will stay in place until Washington is satisfied that Pyongyang has come clean.

Read more: North Korea and South Korea open joint liaison office

"No one in the South wants war, but I would say that it remains in the back of our minds because 80 percent of people here do not believe that Kim will submit to the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of his nuclear weapons," she said.

"Perhaps they want to believe it, but they don't," she said.

Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University in Japan, agrees that Kim has too much to lose to hand over his deterrent.

"Kim's sole purpose is to survive; he doesn't even particularly need the nation to prosper as long as his regime can survive," Mulloy told DW.

Fomenting discord among his enemies is a key part of Kim's strategy, which could dilute sanctions designed to isolate North Korea.

Security guarantee unlikely for Pyongyang

"The only conceivable way in which Kim might give up those weapons would be in return for a security guarantee for his leadership," Mulloy said, adding that it was unlikely for Kim to trust any promises on security.

Mulloy pointed out that the US holds presidential elections every four years, so "any promises that were made by one administration will not necessarily be kept by the next president."

"Kim knows that, and even a guarantee that was backed by the UN or China would probably not be enough to convince him, and that is why I am so pessimistic about the chances of denuclearization," Mulloy added.

Read more: North Korea 'developing new missiles,' US reports

Another scenario that could play out, the international relations professor Ahn said, is that North and South Korea's improved relations could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington — with potentially dire consequences.

"South Korea and the US seem to be pulling in different directions at the moment, and my intuition is that Kim will not give up those nuclear weapons, and that will put a great deal of strain on Seoul's alliance with Washington," she said.

"My concern is that if the two governments get to the point where they are largely ignoring each other and the US decides that the only way to force Kim to give up his weapons is through a military solution, then they will not inform South Korea for fear that the information will be leaked to the North," Ahn said.

"We have talked in the past about a lack of trust between North Korea and the rest of the world, but I would say the bigger danger now is the lack of trust between South Korea and the US," she added.

Kim & Trump: A big deal?

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Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea