Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea ten years ago. Seemingly, he had a single goal in mind upon taking office: to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. That is, to avoid being removed from power by a US-led or US-supported coalition and be executed by those he used to oppress.
How could Kim prevent going the same way as the former leaders of Iraq and Libya? By being in possession of something that Hussein and Gaddafi lacked. Namely, weapons of mass destruction. Thus, North Korea accelerated and perfectioned the development of its nuclear programme under Kim. In spite of calls by the Barack Obama administration to engage in negotiations, ever-growing sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, and requests by China and Russia for North Korea to stop developing its nuclear programme, Kim did not relent.
By late 2017 and with Donald Trump already in office in the US, North Korea had conducted six nuclear tests and two ICBM tests. In short, Pyongyang technically had the ability to strike the US mainland with a nuclear warhead. Kim felt safe. He could declare that North Korea was a nuclear power.
Having become a de facto nuclear power, Kim was in a position to decide what policy to pursue towards the US. Encouraged by Moon Jae-in’s offer to engage in a dialogue to strengthen inter-Korean links, Kim let it be known to Trump that he would be open to hold a bilateral summit with the US president. The unpredictable and unorthodox US leader accepted.
This way, Kim moved on to the second stage of his relationship with Washington: dialogue and negotiations. The Singapore summit of June 2018 captured the world’s attention. From Kim’s perspective, it was a success. Trump pledged that the US would normalize diplomatic relations with Kim and also offered Washington’s economic support in exchange for North Korean denuclearization.
Kim, therefore, had a choice in front of him. Would he be willing to trade parts of its nuclear programme in exchange for economic development? After all, shortly after becoming the leader of his country Kim had promised the North Korean population that he would improve their economic condition. And while nuclear weapons offer a deterrent against a US strike, domestic discontent can create instability when it does not topple authoritarian regimes.
The Hanoi summit of February 2019 showed that Kim valued his nuclear weapons more than better relations with the US, a prospective sanctions relief, and the potential for economic development. In short, Kim continues to fear North Korea becoming the next Iraq or Libya.
This takes us to the following question: What are the prospects for North Korea-US relations? Will Kim prioritize nukes or summits?
At this stage, it can be argued that the US has de facto accepted North Korea’s nuclear status. The Joe Biden administration has repeatedly called for negotiations with North Korea without pre-conditions. Washington’s ultimate goal will remain denuclearization. But there are intermediate goals such as a cap and rollback of parts of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
However, North Korea is yet to respond to the Biden administration. Short-term reasons probably include the COVID-19 pandemic and the next spring’s presidential elections in South Korea.
But more importantly, it seems that Kim is yet to make up his mind about the relationship that he wants to have with the US, as well as with South Korea and the rest of the world more generally. After the failure of the Hanoi summit, North Korea had a few months to recoup and decide on its strategy towards the US. But no discernible strategy was developed. And this seems to continue to be the case until today.
On the one hand, Kim could choose the diplomatic path, agree to a proper diplomatic process with Washington, and aspire to eventually hold a summit with Biden in which North Korea and the US would seal a deal. Were Kim to go down this route, he could be able to succeed where his father and grandfather failed: North Korea could establish diplomatic relations with the US. This would end Pyongyang’s current isolation from much of the outside world, and create the conditions for the development of the North Korean economy in a sustainable way.
On the other hand, Kim could decide that he does not want to countenance giving parts of its nuclear weapons programme. Making this choice would protect North Korea from external interference, but it would make the country economically dependent on China and would not end its isolation from the West. In a sense, North Korea would become—or at least be seen—as an appendix of its only formal ally.
Ultimately, North Korea wants autonomy. Kim does not want to be dependent on any outside power. This includes China, as there is no love lost between Kim and Xi Jinping. Thus, at some point Kim will probably seek to reach out to the US to sign an agreement that will grant him the independence to pursue the regime’s preferred policies. For Pyongyang is extremely unlikely to denuclearize, but Washington and the international community at large seem to have accepted that this is the case. And this should be the starting point for Kim’s policy towards the US.