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Park Hyeong Jung is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
With the inauguration of Moon Jae-in as the new president of South Korea, North Korea is sure to launch a renewed push to achieve its foreign and security policy objectives. Here are five main drivers of North Korea’s policy toward South Korea and the United States.
First, Kim Jong-un believes that even a liberal South Korean president would be incapable of delivering what North Korea wishes to achieve strategically in relations with the South. North Korea may have three wishes: first, separate the issue of inter-Korean rapprochement from his nuclear and missile provocations; second, persuade the South Korean public to take strong enough measures to guarantee the Kim regime’s survival as it is politically, economically, and security wise; and third, make South Korea exert influence on the United States to soften its North Korea policy.
Second, Kim Jong-un believes that a serious reciprocation by his part to South Korean wishes for a renewal of inter-Korean rapprochement would result in the end only in delaying the completion of his paramount strategic objective for the time being, i.e. accomplishment of a system of deterrence and coercion based on a variety of conventional and nuclear tipped missiles, including the capacity to hit the United States with an inter-continental ballistic nuclear missile. He might think this delay could extend the period of North Korea’s vulnerability through lengthening heightened pressure and sanctions by the international community and neighboring countries.
Third, Kim Jong-un knows better than anyone else that the coming years would be a period of intensified tension, not one appropriate for testing rapprochement, on the Korean peninsula. He seeks to greatly augment its nuclear and missile capabilities as fast as possible in the coming years and needs to promote a policy to increase, not decrease, provocative actions. He welcomes and enjoys the permanency of escalated tension on the Korean peninsula for two reasons: first, this would help make case for the urgent necessity of peace agreement on the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms; second, this would divert attention from North Korea’s permanently serious internal problems and strengthen the justification for economic deprivation and strengthened internal political discipline.
Fourth, Kim Jong-un does not believe in the possibility of an inter-Korean rapprochement or one with any other country contingent on a nuclear/missile-freeze deal because he knows better than anyone else that he does not have to assent to a freeze deal that would be acceptable to the United States and/or South Korea. He knows better than anyone else what his ultimate strategic objective is, and how urgent it is to achieve it under the current circumstances of increasingly heightened pressure and sanctions. In addition, he knows better than anyone how much cost he has had to accept in the hitherto process of nuclear and missile build-up and that it has been rather tolerable up until now. He would be confident that, though it could be ratcheted up, the cost would remain under tolerable limits, given the cleavages among neighboring countries, particularly with regard to China’s concerns about potential instability in North Korea. He believes, though with increased risks, he can muddle through in the end and achieve his strategic objectives.
Fifth, with these calculations as backdrop, North Korea might show tactical flexibility in its approaches to South Korea and the United States. Pyongyang might think that, though not valuable in strategic terms, South Korea’s new approach in its North Korea policy might bring favorable tactical opportunities, which should be tested and taken advantage of. North Korea’s tactical flexibility would aim at attaining three objectives; first, weaken the international united front and efficiency of pressure against North Korea; second, buy time for recuperation and preparation for the upcoming crisis; third, test the depth of concessions either by the South and/or the United States; fourth, exacerbate cleavages in South Korea and among neighboring countries.
In dealing with this challenge, the Moon and Trump administrations agree and disagree on many issues. The two parties share a consensus on the dual track approach of pressure and diplomacy. In addition, both the Moon and Trump administrations are dealing with the challenge under acute time pressure and have a “now or never” mindset. But the two sides disagree on whether it is worth testing North Korea’s intentions seriously, even at this juncture, with some inducement. The two parties need to bridge the gap and assign appropriate attention to the other party’s priorities and concerns.