Kim Jong Un’s Cold Endeavour to Reignite Nuclear Talks

  • North Korea’s fourth missile test of 2022 is a cause for concern for the US and its allies.
  • Kim Jong Un has deemed nuclear weapons as pivotal to North Korea’s survival and is adamant on their possession. 
  • Kim Jong Un’s tests may be an extension of China’s geopolitical struggles with the US, helping Xi to apply pressure before the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the apparent launch of a missile from a submarine
Kim Jung Un watches missle test / EPA

Why is Kim Jong Un’s Heat Level Cold?

Answer: Although Kim Jong Un is striving for international acquiescence to his nuclear agenda, little importance has been given to North Korea’s demands, testing the leader’s patience.  

Earlier this month the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted yet another guided-missile test, raising the tally to four tests in 2022 alone. This comes amidst an ongoing global campaign for denuclearisation of the country, which has culminated in numerous sanctions against the DPRK starting as early as October 2006. Since the arrival of Biden on the scene, it would appear as though Kim Jong Un has found yet another opportunity to up the ante. While the Biden administration has indicated their inclination towards future negotiations, it has made no efforts to entice Kim Jong Un and is uncompromising on its leniency with respect to sanctions. Instead, Biden has found himself preoccupied with other more pressing issues like the pandemic domestically along with Ukraine and Afghanistan abroad. This has frustrated Kim Jong Un who has expedited nuclear expansion in a bid to provoke Washington and the international community to renegotiate current sanctions at the very least.

This recent nuclear frenzy has sent American allies in the region scrambling, with Japan desperately looking for ways to fortify its own defences and calling upon the US and South Korea to confront North Korea. That being said, as American allies watch on with angst, Kim Jong Un has often alluded to the fact that nuclear proliferation has a sole function of deterrence and that diplomacy is preferred. In fact, in his 2019 address Kim Jong Un stated that “if the US responds to our proactive, preemptive efforts with trustworthy measures…bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace.” This all adds up to the fact that North Korea is not intent on ever giving up its nuclear arsenal, in Kim’s eyes it is the central security guarantee. However, Kim’s assertions about his willingness to discuss nuclear control on the basis of mutual deterrence suggests that if diplomacy does restart, it will likely not be about denuclearisation, but rather a reprieve in nuclear development and testing in exchange for international coexistence. The goal of the recent testing then becomes about capturing the attention of Washington the only way Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un know – provocation. 

Such strong conviction in the nuclear apparatus should come of no surprise given Kim’s background and apparent success with the approach. In his early days, Kim Jong Un was subject to widespread international ridicule, and lacked the credentials his predecessors had. Hence, he was left with a lot to prove, and in his first public speech he embraced the ingrained “military first” doctrine and vowed the time of a threatened nation was “forever over.” Since then, he has found tremendous success through nuclear weapons technology, asserting North Korea as a force to be reckoned with in the international setting, while achieving what no leader previously could – bringing a sitting American president to negotiate. It is of no surprise, therefore, Kim Jong Un’s unwavering resolution to continue developing nuclear weapons despite an economy devastated by sanctions and the COVID19 pandemic. 

Yet, despite raising the heat on Biden and his allies, Kim has failed to make any considerable inroads in his near- and long-term goals. In other words, he has failed to make a dent in easing sanctions currently placed against the country, and has certainly not made any progress towards being considered a de facto nuclear weapons state like Pakistan or Israel. With nothing but further sanctions on the cards for the moment, Kim seeks to once again up the ante, alluding to a resumption of testing of long-range missiles in response to “hostile moves” from the US. It would appear as though Kim is intent on recommencing his game of brinkmanship in the hopes of added leverage and attention. 

Who is changing Kim Jong Un’s temperature?

Answer: Kim Jong Un seeks to revive his old blueprint of brinkmanship, pushed by his increasing frustration with the international community, while exploiting key global political events.

Kim’s unprecedented start to the year could be a reflection of his frustration with the international community, as the pandemic continues to exacerbate the effect of pre-existing sanctions. In fact, the North Korean economy is now smaller than it was when Kim Jong Un took over. The recent expansion of weapons tests this month, therefore, is an apparent effort to reignite a prolonged halt in nuclear diplomacy. It is plausible that the events of January are a foreshadowing of what is to come in the upcoming months after the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, with Kim declaring during a recent meeting that it would consider resuming “all temporarily suspended” nuclear ICBM tests in light of recent US actions. The leader has been extremely critical of the United States for its military exercises with South Korea and its presence of troops in the region. These claims point to a clear pretext for continued testing. In the recent past, North Korea has found success in the art of brinkmanship, manufacturing international crises with weapons tests, before offering diplomacy. In 2017, Kim himself found success with the tactic through a run of ICBM tests and outlandish threats before beginning diplomacy with Trump in 2018. With Biden’s political capital lacking for the moment, it would appear as though Kim is resorting to old ways in a bid for less rigid negotiations and to make its presence felt. 

Moreover, North Korean weapon tests in the past have coincided with key political events across the globe. With South Korean presidential elections coming this March, and Joe Biden’s crucial midterm elections in November, the timing of recent tests suggests a repeat of this trend. Kim Jong Un seeks to occupy a central part of the discourse that will inevitably ensue in tandem with the elections and maximise the political effects of his actions. With a provocation large enough, this could cause further bother for the leader of the free world, with Biden’s approval ratings on the decline. Moreover, Kim is cognizant of the fact that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s legacy was predicated on North-South reconciliation. Consequently, Moon has been an advocate for an easing of sanctions to enable inter-Korean cooperation. As his time in office comes to a close, and the recent missile tests making abundantly clear the lingering hostilities in the Korean peninsula, Moon will likely be inclined to make a final push at North-South cooperation and, by extension, an easing of sanctions on North Korea. 

That being said, Kim’s recent urgency can also be explained by the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. It is likely that Xi Jinping and China will leverage their relationship with the supreme leader in exchange for a nuclear hiatus during the Games. As such, Kim Jong Un is trying to maximise his political clout through the tests before Xi occupies centre stage who himself has prominent international and domestic considerations to grapple with. In the meantime, it would appear as though Kim’s escalation has caught the eye of key stakeholders in the issue, both regionally and internationally. This is epitomised not only by the US’ bilateral sanctions on key North Korean leadership and proposed UNSC sanctions, but also by a conversation between Biden and Japanese PM Kishida who extensively discussed North Korea earlier this week.

What is driving Kim Jong Un?

Answer: Kim Jong Un ultimately seeks the sustenance of his regime. While survival is a function of nuclear armament, he is also driven by Xi Jinping’s vested interests in the region, upon whom Kim is reliant on for aid.

Kim Jong Un’s arrival to the scene was sudden, and had little time to accrue the credentials of his predecessors. He assumed top positions in the government at the ages of 27 and 28, most notably holding the position of the chairmanship of the National Defence Commission (NDC) as early as April 2009. This, coupled with North Korea’s doctrine of “military first” indoctrinated Kim early on in his career to believe in the absoluteness of a hard power approach to politics. Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear program was born in the 1960s due to the very perception that neither of its allies – the Soviet Union and China – could be relied upon for its defence and that they were, instead, on their own. Beijing often refused to share information from its nuclear tests and Moscow appeared to have abandoned Havana during the Cuban missile crisis; a message received by Pyongyang.  It becomes evident, therefore, that the very reason behind the existence of North Korea’s nuclear program was its survival. Kim’s propensity towards the military only serves to solidify the security generated by such technology. 

At the same time, the leader also has domestic considerations. Military exercises have brought Kim significant domestic clout, and the launches allow him to convey that national priorities will not falter. In other words, leadership is proving that Kim’s promises will be realised no matter the circumstances, playing the same tune as his execution campaign which has purged 100 officials since 2011 – including his uncle – who have defied Kim’s aspirations in the past.

The recent resumption of aid between China and North Korea also suggests that Beijing is complicit at the very least with Kim Jong Un’s provocations. Some experts believe that China is not only supporting its ally economically, but is also coordinating with its military. This is substantiated by China’s recent block of the US-led effort to exercise further sanctions in the Security Council on the isolated nation. Under current rules, the block can last for six months, buying Kim ample time. Moreover, there have been signs of Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un moving closer, with the latest annual threat assessment coming out of the US listing China and North Korea as the US’ main national security challenges. 

With China itself seeking to defy the US and its allies regionally in the South China Sea and Taiwan, having a subservient state in desperate need of economic relief that can markedly threaten the United States could be the ace up Xi’s sleeve. US leadership in the past have conceded that China has leverage over North Korea, which is capable of determining the efficacy of both sanctions and the larger goal of denuclearisation. In fact, Trump indicated during his term that in exchange for help on the issue of North Korea, he would be willing to make concessions in other areas. Furthermore, with Japan and the US becoming increasingly coordinated in their approach to Taiwan – agreeing to a buildup of US troops in the region – China can do with an ally that has the potential to evade missile systems, and target key Western strongholds in the region. Ultimately, by enabling North Korea to potentially further occupy Biden’s already full plate, China and Xi Jinping stand to benefit not just with an added bargaining chip it can leverage to further its own regional ambitions, but by also having found a distraction and better yet a counterbalance to increasing hostilities as a result of its own activities. As a result, Kim Jong Un, desperate for respite coming from China, is inclined to back his ally and may have found himself a pawn in China’s larger geopolitical chess match.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Depending on the Biden administration’s appetite for Kim Jong Un’s recent escalation, a period of heightened tensions between the two leaders could be set in motion. 

Although the Biden administration is yet to formally respond to Kim’s latest advancements, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has labelled the latest tests as “profoundly destabilising.” This alludes to a potential reignition of hostilities between the nations, with more sanctions already on the cards. Moreover, the prospects for negotiations in the near future seem bleak given the rapidly developing situation on the Ukrainian border that will likely occupy the American president for the time being. Kim Jong Un, conversely, seems to be in a rush to further develop his nuclear capacity, coinciding with key international events. However, the leader’s patience seems to be running out, with US leadership showing no interest in a rolling back of sanctions. It is only a matter of time before either Biden or Kim blinks. 

Regionally, China seems to be complicit in Kim’s recent escalations having found another angle which it could use to strong-arm the United States and its allies over the dispute in the South China Sea and Taiwan. North Korea’s military capabilities also provide an opportunity to counterbalance Japanese, South Korean and American consolidation in the region. As the region heats up, Kim’s aggression only contributes to the fragility of the peace. Hence, although Kim Jong Un’s nuclear mischief is dictated by his own ambitions to assert North Korea as a de facto military state, it has inadvertently become a source of tension for other regional disputes; one that China seems intent on capitalising on. 

Ahaan Rai

R&A Alumno