There is literally nothing in the history of the past three decades to suggest that the diplomatic dance President Donald Trump begins with North Korea on Tuesday will succeed—no hard evidence Pyongyang will give up its nuclear-weapons program, no record of North Korea’s honoring international agreements, no sign it would allow economic pressure to get in the way of military priorities.
So, as Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sit down for a historic summit, the question is: Why go ahead with this process at all? Why give Mr. Kim upfront a big prize—the international legitimacy bestowed by a meeting with the American president—when there is so little reason for optimism?
The answer, say South Korean officials who have studied Mr. Kim, lies in a speech he gave on April 20 to his Workers Party’s Central Committee. Study the words closely, they say, and the young North Korean leader lays out the rationale for a profound strategic shift, away from years of obsession with nuclear development and toward a plan to escape all-encompassing economic backwardness.
A huge dose of skepticism is needed here. Still, it is important to look back closely at that April statement, for it may offer the best explanation of why U.S. and South Korean officials have decided the effort of engagement is worth the risks inherent in it.
Mr. Kim’s remarks that day were summarized in a dispatch by the Korean Central News Agency, the government mouthpiece. The agency reported that Mr. Kim told central committee members at the outset that he had convened them to decide “important matters for attaining higher goals.”
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“The overall situation,” he went on, “is rapidly changing.” That’s because North Korea late last year achieved a “miraculous victory” by “completing the state nuclear force.” For the past several years, Mr. Kim said, the North Korean people had “worked hard with their belt tightened” to acquire “the powerful treasured sword” of nuclear weapons.
That mission has been ”successfully concluded,” guaranteeing that North Koreans could henceforth lead a “dignified” life, he said.
Having declared victory, Mr. Kim then made the key pivot. There is no longer any need to conduct nuclear tests, or to test-fire the intermediate- and long-range missiles needed to carry nuclear weapons, because that work “was finished.” For the same reason, he said, there was no longer a need to continue operating the North’s nuclear-test facility.
Instead, he said, North Korea now faces different “important tasks.” Specifically, he said, the “strategic line” of the ruling party henceforth would be “to concentrate all efforts of the whole party and country to the socialist economic construction.” Lest anybody miss the point, the report said, Mr. Kim suggested a new banner to mark the moment, one that proclaims, “Let us further accelerate the advance of our revolution by concentrating all our efforts on socialist economic construction!”
In short, Mr. Kim was declaring a turn toward what he called “a new strategic line”: economic development had become more important than further nuclear work.
There are, of course, several problems in deciding how much to read into those words. First, while Mr. Kim seems to be calling out a clear strategic shift, it isn’t the first time such a thing has been suggested. Truth-telling has never been a strong North Korean attribute.
The second problem is that, even if the words mean exactly what they say, it isn’t clear that a shift in emphasis from developing more nuclear arms also means willingness to give up nuclear arms already developed.
Mr. Kim is saying that North Korea has proved its point. It is now a nuclear-capable state, for all intents and purposes, and that gives his regime a whole new level of security. But is he saying that having proved nuclear capability is sufficient to provide security, or that he still needs to hold some nuclear weapons to do so?
This isn’t clear—and it is the crux of the matter. The Trump administration’s long-term demand is not merely that Mr. Kim stop his nuclear machine from moving forward, but that he throw it into reverse, disposing of nuclear devices and the capability to produce more.
It remains hard to believe that Mr. Kim will do so. But perhaps, as a younger North Korean leader educated in the West, he truly has a different view of the world and his country’s place in it than did his father or grandfather. Finding out whether the words of April 20 are literally true, or merely an artful artifice designed to win economic help, is the best rationale for the new Trump-Kim dialogue.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at firstname.lastname@example.org