President Trump deserves credit for seizing the moment for negotiations with North Korea. But some little-noticed documents reveal that Kim Jong Un has been planning his denuclearization offer and opening to America for the past five years.
The diplomatic pace is accelerating now as Trump and Kim prepare for their planned summit. There’s talk that North Korea may soon release three American prisoners, and Pyongyang has announced plans for a theatrical demolition of a nuclear test site later this month, with American observers watching.
How did this extraordinary Korean detente happen? It’s a complicated story, but it appears that Kim has been the main driver. He has relentlessly pursued a dual strategy — to obtain a usable nuclear weapon and then pivot toward dialogue and modernization of his economy. He sought his nuclear deterrent with almost reckless determination, but he has been surprisingly nimble in making the turn toward diplomacy.
Would Kim have moved toward negotiations regardless of who was president? We’ll never know. But there’s no denying that Trump’s confrontational approach created an opportunity for crisis diplomacy — and that he was bold enough to embrace Kim’s offer of direct talks.
The North Korean documents were highlighted for me by Robert Carlin, a former CIA and State Department analyst who has visited the North more than 30 times since 1996. He retired from the government in 2004 and has since worked at Stanford University. In our many conversations over the past year, Carlin has been consistently accurate in predicting what Kim would do.
Kim first outlined his dual approach, known as the “byungjin line,” in a speech to a Korean Workers Party meeting in March 2013, two years after taking power. He said that North Korea wanted to strengthen its nuclear-weapons capability, but also improve its backward and impoverished economy. The U.S. didn’t pay much attention, because Kim also said he wasn’t prepared to discuss denuclearization. But that soon changed.
Kim’s regime explicitly put denuclearization on the table in a June 16, 2013, statement by the National Defense Commission (NDC). Though the statement had the usual rhetoric, calling America a “war arsonist” at one point, it also included this remarkable language: “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the behest of our leader” and “must be carried out … without fail.” The statement also urged “high-level talks between the DPRK [North Korea] and the U.S. authorities to … establish regional peace and security.”
Reinforcing the message, a North Korean official privately told American contacts a few weeks later that “underpinning the new policy articulated in the NDC statement was Kim Jong Un’s personal, positive stance toward improving relations with the United States,” according to an unclassified summary of the conversation.
North Korea amplified the denuclearization message in a July 6, 2016, statement by a government spokesman that sought to anchor this policy as part of the dynastic legacy of Kim’s father and grandfather. “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the behest of the Great Leader [Kim Il Song] and the Fatherly General [Kim Jong Il and the steadfast will of our party, army and people,” the statement said.
Despite the talk of denuclearization, Kim’s regime drove defiantly toward the nuclear-weapons capability the statements claimed he was ready to give up. This push culminated in a series of nuclear and missile tests last year, after Trump became president. Despite Trump’s bellicose threats, the North Koreans kept testing.
Late last year, Kim declared, in effect, “mission accomplished.” After a missile launch on Nov. 29, 2017, he proclaimed “with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
On New Year’s Day came the pivot. Kim said that although “the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time,” and his missiles could target all of America, he now wanted to stress “the building of a prosperous country” and a diplomatic outreach to South Korea.
Kim proposed that North Korea attend the Pyeongchang Olympics to “ease the acute military tension” and “create a peaceful environment on the Korean Peninsula.” From that proposal flowed the extraordinary chain of meetings, confidence building measures and public promises about denuclearization — and the pathway to the expected Trump-Kim summit.
Last month, he told a Workers Party plenum that the “byungjin line” had triumphed and he was shifting to a “new strategic line” devoted to boosting the economy.
Kim is like an illusionist who tells you what trick he’s going to do, and then does it before your eyes, daring you to guess the secret. Trump sees himself as a clever, confrontational deal-maker, but he may have met his match with the kid from Pyongyang.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.