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Kim Jong Un is willing to begin talks with the U.S. and says his regime is open to discussions about denuclearization. (Original images by Reuters and Getty Images)
North Korea Crisis

Three reasons behind Kim Jong Un's about-face

Kim's sudden move to play nice keeps the world guessing

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer | North Korea

SEOUL -- The leaders of North and South Korea are set to meet in a summit in the demilitarized zone in late April, in a sign of fast-warming ties. This comes after months of the North threatening nuclear war on the South, Japan and the U.S. North Korea conducted its last missile test as recently as November.

In a meeting with South Korean envoys earlier this week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that he would halt the testing of nuclear weapons and discuss relinquishing them if the country could begin direct negotiations with the U.S.

After having traded insults and threats with U.S. President Donald Trump over the last six months, Kim's about-face has many scratching their heads. The Nikkei Asian Review compiled the views of experts who outlined three possible reasons behind Kim's actions.

Reason 1: Buying time

Kim's surprise commitments could well be calculated tactics to play for time, while it continues with its development of nuclear weapons, said Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, in a note on Tuesday.

"North Korea's apparent new commitments are likely designed to try to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. and buy more time to continue developing a fully functioning intercontinental ballistic missile," said Eurasia Group.

Analysts there said they were skeptical that the talks would be successful based on history. While it was possible that officials from Washington and Pyongyang might finally sit at the same table, the fact that North Korea had reneged on its promises in the past did not bode well for the future.

They also pointed to the fact that Kim's regime had already invested so heavily in its nuclear program that it was unlikely he would denuclearize easily.

"While there maybe a few rounds of U.S.-North Korea talks given the North's willingness to freeze its testing program, this is unlikely to evolve into a sustained diplomatic process that leads to denuclearization," they said.

Although some hope that these developments could lead to a real detente on the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang's commitments are nothing more than manipulation, the analysts said.

Reason 2: To loosen economic sanctions

The Trump administration has piled on "maximum pressure" against North Korea in the form of unilateral and international economic sanctions. These have proved painful for Pyongyang, particularly in recent months.

The rogue state wants to loosen these sanctions. And one way to achieve that was to launch talks with the U.S. Jeong Se-hyun, a former unification minister from South Korea, said Kim expects that Washington will lift sanctions during any dialogue.

"The sanctions should be painful to the North. So, if Pyongyang wants to escape from them, it should kick off talks with the U.S., which will lead to six-party talks and suspend sanctions," said Jeong in an interview with CBS radio in Seoul.

Jeong pointed out that China's sanctions have hit the regime as its only ally controls the supply of oil and other staples. Sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, including China, late last year sought to cut off resources for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs by slashing exports of refined petroleum products to the country by 90%.

The council also banned North Korea's export of food and agricultural products, machinery, electrical equipment, earth and stone, including magnesite and magnesia, wood and vessels. The resolution also prohibits the country from selling or transferring fishing rights.

"While talks are ongoing, it is hard to maintain sanctions. I think North Korea is aggressive in engagement this time with such an intention," said Jeong.

Reason 3: Convince the world of its nuclear power

North Korea has tried hard to be taken seriously as a nuclear-armed state, which it sees as a proud achievement and a vital shield for the regime. It wants the world to believe that it is capable of producing a powerful device and launching it over a significant distance -- a real threat for many countries.

The Trump administration won't admit that North Korea has that capability, even though CIA Director Mike Pompeo said last October that it was only a matter of "months away" before the rogue state would perfect its nuclear weapons program.

Some analysts said Kim was hoping to use the denuclearization talks to get permission for retaining his nuclear arsenal while freezing the testing of weapons in return for guarantees of his regime's survival.

"Denuclearization talks are meaningless because North Korea already has become a country possessing nuclear weapons. Now, it is more important to make sure the country does not proliferate arms," said Han S. Park, a professor emeritus of international affairs at the University of Georgia.

Kim wants to convince the world that North Korea is functioning normally with rights to own nuclear weapons, and the regime hopes to boost its reputation through engagement, Park said.

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