We Need to Test Our Assumptions About North Korea

    Ken Gause

    Security, Asia

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju walk together at the truce village of Panmunjom

    Only through a clear eyed approach to North Korea can we hope to develop strategies that will have resonance and traction and make the most of the opportunity that we may now be presented with.

    The Western media is filled with projections and speculation about the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. These views are based on long-held assumptions within the Pyongyang watching community about North Korea’s strategy for its nuclear program and intentions on the Korean Peninsula. Concerns about Kim Jong-un laying a trap or rehashing a strategy that we have seen before abound to the point that they are almost sacrosanct. [1] It is time that the community of Korea watchers reassesses these assumptions. Many may prove to be valid and well worth holding on to. But others should be challenged for proof and logic. Only through a clear eyed approach to North Korea can we hope to develop strategies that will have resonance and traction and make the most of the opportunity that we may now be presented with.

    The first assumption we need to consider focuses on the reason for Kim Jong-un’s about-face in 2018 from brinkmanship to diplomacy. The assumptions related to this question are not universal. The U.S. administration and many of the conservative pundits give credit to President Trump’s strategy of Maximum Pressure and threats of a bloody nose if North Korea did not change its ways and stop testing its missile and nuclear programs and come to the negotiating table. They argue that North Korea was feeling the pain of the sanctions and Kim needed relief. There seems little doubt that North Korea was feeling the sting of sanctions, but if we maintain this as the sole reason for Kim’s actions, we assume he is coming to the negotiating table from a self-perceived position of weakness. Such an assumption is likely wrong and could leave U.S. negotiators feeling they are in a conspicuously advantageous position—a feeling that could lead to serious missteps in the course of negotiations.

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