By Phillip Orchard

At a meeting in Pyongyang on March 5, Kim Jong Un reportedly told South Korean envoys that he is willing to open talks with the U.S. on abandoning the North’s nuclear weapons if its security could be guaranteed – a departure from Pyongyang’s stance that its nukes would never be bargained away. During the meeting, according to Seoul, Kim told the envoys that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was his father’s dying wish. Potentially underscoring the North’s sincerity, it also expressed an “understanding” of South Korea’s need to resume joint military exercises with the U.S. once the Paralympic Games conclude later this month – and said that it would refrain from conducting nuclear or ballistic missile tests as long as talks were ongoing. This too would be a marked shift in Pyongyang’s position. It previously saw such drills as preparations for an invasion of the North and thus demanded that they be suspended indefinitely in exchange for any freeze in its nuclear or ballistic missile testing (a position supported by both China and Russia).

In April, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will hold a rare inter-Korean summit at the Demilitarized Zone to push, in part, for U.S.-North Korean talks. Talk is cheap, of course, and North Korea has never cared much for the credibility of its commitments. The two previous inter-Korean summits, in 2000 and 2007, took place under circumstances similar to today, during periods when the North Korean economy was collapsing and when South Korea was ruled by relatively dovish governments. And the agreements reached at both – mostly modest measures aimed to boost cooperation and economic integration – were hailed by all parties involved as landmark steps toward cementing peace on the peninsula.

Yet, neither summit did much to stall North Korea’s long march toward nuclear statehood. The agreement reached in 2000 eventually fell apart and the one reached in 2007 was never really implemented. The main difference this time around is that North Korea is far closer to obtaining a viable long-range nuclear deterrent that it could use to forestall a U.S. attack in perpetuity, drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington and negotiate on regional matters from a position of strength unprecedented in Pyongyang. In 2000, it had yet to conduct a nuclear test. In 2007, it had conducted only one and had demonstrated no major progress on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

So why would it be any more sincere about denuclearizing now? Conventional wisdom says that North Korea’s outreach during the Olympics has been merely a tactical move to buy itself time to complete its nuclear deterrent, gauge the South’s willingness to negotiate on the North’s terms and probe for opportunities to weaken the international sanctions regime. And considering the rapid progress of the North’s nuclear and missile development, its pattern of past behavior and the relatively weak hand the U.S. is playing at the moment, odds are that the conventional wisdom will prove accurate once again. For this reason, South Korea is responding with only guarded optimism, promising to ramp up military cooperation with the U.S. in the meantime. Still, for a country seemingly within reach of a nuclear weapon able to strike distant adversaries, Pyongyang’s apparent about-face is curious enough that we should at least consider what might compel the North to look for a way out of the standoff.

North Korea’s Vulnerabilities

There are three overlapping possibilities that merit close observation, any combination of which is likely to be shaping the North’s strategy.

The first possibility is that the North remains farther from achieving a viable nuclear deterrent than is generally assumed. Despite its progress over the past few years, Pyongyang is still, in most ways, acting out of vulnerability. It is true that the North has demonstrated the ability to fly a ballistic missile far enough to strike the U.S. east coast. But it has yet to demonstrate that it has mastered the technology needed to keep the missile intact and on target as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere – by far the most difficult part of ballistic missile development. Without it, the North doesn’t have a deliverable nuclear warhead capable of threatening the U.S. If nothing else, in expressing a willingness to bargain away its nuclear program, North Korea is admitting that it can’t yet strike the U.S. with any degree of certainty.

This means the North remains firmly within the most dangerous window of its nuclear development – it has demonstrated a high probability that it will achieve a full nuclear deterrent, but hasn’t yet done so. The likelihood of a U.S. military operation to address the North’s nuclear program is highest in this phase. So too is sanctions pressure. It’s unclear how long Pyongyang can tolerate the risks of this window. But the steeper the technical hurdles in its missile program become, the more Pyongyang is likely to consider an offramp to the crisis.

This dovetails with the second possibility: that sanctions pressure is getting to Pyongyang. North Korea is exceedingly adept at getting around sanctions, and its population is well-conditioned to, as Vladimir Putin put it last year, eat grass if needed to support the regime’s nuclear aims. Yet, there have been dozens of recent indicators suggesting that the North is feeling the pain. For example, a South Korean intelligence assessment last month purportedly claimed the North’s hard currency reserves will run out by October. An unconfirmed report citing Chinese sources in January said Kim Jong Un had all but drained the slush fund dedicated to nuclear and missile development. By most accounts, China has been complying with its sanctions commitments by pinching off imports of critical North Korean commodities and capping oil exports across the Yalu River. Condemning sanctions has increasingly become a focal point of the North’s rhetoric, while recent leadership changes in Pyongyang point to an effort to reassure North Koreans about the regime’s command over the economy.

More often than not, it’s impossible to verify these reports. It’s equally difficult to identify a breaking point for the regime in Pyongyang. Sanctions alone will not compel North Korea to capitulate. But the body of evidence suggests that the sanctions pressure is strong enough to, at minimum, become a factor in Pyongyang’s cost-benefit calculations. North Korea’s foremost imperative is regime preservation, and outside powers are not the only threat to its survival. An economic crisis that sows discontent with Pyongyang’s strategy among North Korean elites, undermines the readiness of North Korean forces and perhaps even deprives the North of the resources needed to push through to nuclear statehood cannot be dismissed as a peripheral concern.

The third possibility is that the North is growing increasingly uncomfortable with the threat of a U.S. attack. South Korea has, for the moment, succeeded in persuading the U.S. against an attack, and talk of a punitive U.S. “bloody nose strike” following the North’s next test has since been dismissed by the White House. The U.S. realizes it can’t unilaterally go to war without putting the South at unacceptable risk and thus likely detonating the alliance over the long run. Big picture U.S. concerns about China outweigh those regarding North Korea, and the U.S. does not want to substantially weaken its position in Northeast Asia. But the U.S. still has an imperative to prevent North Korea from obtaining weapons that could strike the U.S. mainland, meaning Pyongyang cannot be certain that the U.S. can be held at bay indefinitely. However bloody and strategically costly a military operation might be for the U.S., it would almost certainly mean the end of the regime in Pyongyang. This, of course, is an argument in favor of pushing forward with its nuclear and missile programs to eliminate the threat for good. But the longer it takes Pyongyang to reach the promised land, the more it will be at risk of circumstances becoming more favorable for a U.S. strike.

Valuable Bargaining Chip

To whatever extent a combination of these factors is molding Pyongyang’s strategy, the North has ample reasons to be actively exploring an alternate means of guaranteeing its security – even if only to give itself options and avoid backing itself into a corner. This could come in a number of forms, ranging from the North putting itself under China’s nuclear umbrella to something as unexpected as embracing the U.S. The most intriguing possibility is that both Seoul and Pyongyang see an opening to move toward some sort of jointly guided reunification process – an exceedingly complicated scenario with no comparable precedent among modern states, but one that could theoretically allow North and South Korea to end their reliance on and much of their vulnerability to foreign powers altogether.

Each of these options would come with myriad downsides, and the lack of evidence for any scenario makes speculation about their mechanics premature. Moreover, none would outweigh the security provided by a viable nuclear deterrent. But the point is, even if the North is indeed nearing a breaking point, it won’t simply hand over its nukes for food aid and sanctions relief. It’s built an extraordinarily valuable bargaining chip in the form of its nuclear program – one that may still prove too valuable to bargain away. And it’s long history of subjugation to foreign powers is too hardwired for Pyongyang to accept a return to a strategy of merely isolating itself and hoping it gets left alone.

Whether from a position of growing confidence or internal crisis, the North is making its play to negotiate its future on its own terms. We’ll see the strength of its hand when joint U.S.-South Korean exercises resume in April.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.