On Korean War 70th Anniversary, What Does the North's Kim Jong Un Want?

Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, the conflict that pulled the peninsula into ruinous fighting that killed almost 5 million people.

The war ended without a formal peace treaty, so technically Seoul and Pyongyang remain at war across the tense Demilitarized Zone border that cuts the peninsula in two.

The anniversary comes amid fresh regional tensions, as the secretive and authoritarian North Korean regime lashed out at South Korean and the U.S. over a lack of progress on denuclearization and sanctions relief talks which many hoped were the opening steps towards lasting peace.

A formal peace treaty to end the Korean War has long been touted as a way to signal cross-border detente and cooperation, but thus far it remains out of reach.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shepherded the North to assured nuclear weapon status and secured multiple meetings with a U.S. president, but continued sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic, and reports of his own ill health all pose challenges to the young autocrat.

A Korean War peace treaty would be another feather in the dictator's cap, though with talks having collapsed and the U.S. presidential election looming it appears unlikely one will materialize, regardless of how much he might want it.

Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest told Newsweek that a formal peace treaty, even if not a legally binding one—would mean Kim had "achieved something his supposed god-like grandfather and father never did."

"He would then be able to come back to Pyongyang as the man ended a conflict that, at least on paper, his nation has been fighting for 70 years," he explained. "That would give him valuable political clout to use later to make tougher deals—such as trading economic sanctions relief for parts of his nuclear program."

North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office close to the DMZ last week, having already threatened to do so in retaliation for propaganda balloons floated into the North from defector groups in the South. Pyongyang also threatened to re-occupy sensitive areas demilitarized under a 2018 inter-Korean agreement, though this week abandoned the plan.

Pyongyang habitually ratchets up tensions when it feels ignored or disrespected, or is in pressing need of aid from the South. "In many respects, the Kim regime is doing what it always does: dial up so-called pressure in a way to get the spotlight back then dial it back when the desired effect has been achieved, something they have been doing on and off for decades," Kazianis explained.

Former special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun told Newsweek that to act out against the Americans is risky, so the regime in Pyongyang focused on the "weak link" in Seoul.

The North still wants talks with the U.S. and South Korea, given the crippling effects of sanctions combined with expected economic turmoil from the coronavirus pandemic, which has undermined the lifeline of cross-border trade with China.

Talks have been framed as an exchange of sanctions relief for the North dismantling its nuclear program, but few observers actually expect Pyongyasng to surrender the atomic insurance policy it worked so hard for so long to build—a project with which all three North Korean leaders have been obsessed.

"You need to begin with a clear-eyed assessment that they're not going to give up nuclear weapons," Yun said. A more realistic approach now would be to pursue an arms control agreement, he explained. This, however, would effectively be recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state—"that is not politically politically palatable for anyone," Yun said.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the North is already armed with more than 60 nuclear warheads, with enough material to produce more each year. Pyongyang is also still perfecting its ability to mount nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S.

Kim's nuclear arsenal is already large and potent enough to deter sudden direct U.S. action. He may now be willing to trade elements of the program for sanctions relief, Yun said. But this is a process that will take "a long, long time," he explained, stretching across administrations.

One solution to this might be multilateral negotiations of the kind that secured the Iran nuclear deal, Yun said. Such an approach would have the benefit of Chinese involvement, though would require the U.S. to put aside its other disputes with Beijing. This seems deeply unlikely under President Donald Trump, who has taken pride in abandoning landmark international agreements.

November's election will be the most bitterly fought in modern political history. Trump's campaign is throwing everything into his re-election bid, seeking to fight off former Vice President Joe Biden who is riding high in the polls and benefitting from the numerous scandals that have roiled the White House.

It seems unlikely there will be any movement on the North Korean issue before the election. Still, Kazianis said Kim might want to take advantage of Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in's desire for progress before a potential changing of the guard in Washington.

"He has to know that the combination of [Moon] and [Trump] are the best chance he has in at least a generation to forge not only a lasting peace but get meaningful sanctions relief for his weapons mass destruction programs," Kazianis said.

With hawkish former National Security Advisor John Bolton out of the way, "It might make sense for Kim and Trump to make one last push for peace—perhaps ending the Korean War, exchanging liaison offices and trading some nuclear weapons for sanctions relief," Kazianis said.

"Trump could easily offer this and place snapback provisions in any deal so if North Korea were to violate the agreement sanctions could easily be reinstated."

Trump has shown scant regard for deals agreed by his predecessors, and Kim might fear that a future Biden administration would ditch any last-minute accords between Pyongyang and the Trump White House.

But Kazianis suggested that any deal with North Korea would be beneficial to the next administration, which will inevitably have to put China at the heart of its Asian policy.

Yun said that while North Korea might welcome a more predictable president in the Oval Office, more stable U.S. leaders have generally been more conventional. "I think they want someone who will take political risks to do something different," he said.

"I think there is an opportunity once the election is over in November—whether Biden wins or Trump wins—to have a review of North Korea policy and chart a more sensible and more realistic course," Yun said.

Kim may decide to apply pressure in coming months with more aggressive rhetoric and weapon tests. So far, the North has maintained its moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests, though observers are always on the lookout for signs that the freeze will end.

Kim has previously marked the July 4 holiday with weapon tests. Pyongyang might also decide on a high-profile stunt to mark joint U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers in August or the Korean Workers' Party founding anniversary in October.

Yun suggested Kim would be "very reluctant" to cross the ICBM-nuclear red line. "Gven Trump's domestic difficulties, he is unpredictable in how he would react and he could very well react dangerously."

Still, Kazianis noted "there is no telling what Kim might do," though suggested Kim may hold off any further provocations if he does think a deal can be done. "That does not seem like a risk worth taking. And looking at how Kim is dialing back tensions once again, he could be setting the stage to try and make history with Trump one last time."

North Korea, South Korea, Korean War, anniversary
A woman walks past a television screen showing a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on May 2, 2020. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty