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Opinion: Trump must guarantee Kim regime survival

In the afterglow of the latest Kim-Moon summit, negotiations between the US and North Korea appear to be back on track. However, Pyongyang won't accept anything less than a formal end to the war, says DW's Martin Fritz.

This week during their third meeting this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in managed to breathe new life into negotiations between the US and North Korea. US President Donald Trump signaled his goodwill and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he wants to meet his North Korean counterpart in New York.

The positive response from the US is understandable as Kim made some interesting offers, including potentially closing the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. Yongbyon is at the center of Pyongyang's weapons program and includes a nuclear reactor and a plutonium production plant.

Read more: South Korea urges for 'bold decisions' ahead of next Trump-Kim summit

However, the essential dilemma between Washington and Pyongyang remains stuck in place. The US sees North Korea's nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip for dropping sanctions, but North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip for maintaining the regime's security.

Martin Fritz, Journalist in Tokio (Privat)

DW's Tokyo correspondent Martin Fritz

Kim wants assurances from the US that it will not seek the collapse of his regime. The US could formally assuage Pyongyang's fears with a peace treaty.

However, an option short of signing an official peace treaty would be an agreement to end the state of war between the US and North Korea. In Singapore, Trump supposedly promised Kim he would sign such an agreement soon.

At face value, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War seems like a good thing. However, the consequences are varied and complex.

For one, the status of US troops stationed in South Korea would need to be redefined. A peace treaty would also mean the withdrawal of UN observers from the 38th parallel and the dealing with the inner-Korean partition would be left completely up to the Koreas. In this case, an attack from the US against North Korea would then violate international law.

Therefore, a peace treaty could easily be portrayed as a belated declaration of victory for North Korea in the Korean War. Of course, this would be exploited by Pyongyang's propaganda machine.

Who can you trust?

However, without more trust-building from the US, the Kim regime will not put down its weapons. And the temporary cessation of military exercises with South Korea is not enough. The US should accept the Kim regime's existential fear, end the state of war with North Korea and begin discussions about a peace treaty.

Of course, taking this step would be risky. Ultimately, Trump and Moon need to be confident that Kim intends to reorient his regime. North Korea acted like a pariah under Kim's father and grandfather, and in turn was treated like a pariah.

Read more: Sieren's China: A war of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un und Moon Jae In auf dem Gipfel des Mt. Paektu (Reuters/Pyeongyang Press Corps)

Kim and Moon hold hands atop Mount Paektu in North Korea on September 20

The younger Kim appears ready to give up this self-imposed isolation and is motivated by the knowledge that only a "normalized" North Korea can ensure his people a level of prosperity that will legitimize his place as ruler. 

It also shouldn't be overlooked that the young North Korean ruler is risking a lot with his détente policy. North Korean propaganda has always portrayed the US as the source of all evil. The deprivation suffered by the North Korean people is justified by the omnipresent threat of a US attack, which the regime claims could happen at any time. Of course, Pyongyang's propaganda would celebrate a formal end to the Korean War as a victory for the regime.

On the other hand, with the US no longer an enemy, the regime would be forced to find another way to justify its existence;  perhaps by portraying itself as the savior of the Korean nation. However, this transformation will not be simple and could end up very bad for Kim – potentially with a putsch from conservative officials and generals or by a bloody citizen uprising.

Read more: Kim-Moon summit: Is North Korea just buying time with empty concessions?

North Korea: US demands UN meeting over sanctions violations

Quid pro quo?

Kim's negotiation strategy looks to be following the old pattern. He promises a lot and only acts when it costs him little. The highly visible Yongbyon facility, for example, was always intended to be sacrificed as a bargaining chip in negotiations, while other hidden facilities continue to operate secretly.

North Korea has never provided a full list of its nuclear material and facilities or allowed for full inspections. North Korea will keep its nuclear shield for as long as possible and in its insecurity, the regime has every reason to do so. That is why Pyongyang is demanding a formal end to the state of war.

If South Korean President Moon doesn't consider the future of his country to be in danger, then Trump should follow Moon's assessment and sign an agreement ending the Korean War. The North Koreans have already stated what they are ready to offer, the ball is now in the other court. 

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