Donald Trump's decision to fire Rex Tillerson as U.S. Secretary of State may fuel concerns that the U.S. president has weakened his team in the run-up to the crucial summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Much of the commentary in the U.S. on the proposed summit has been deeply skeptical. Trump is viewed as being ill-prepared for the event, with warnings that he will be "played" by Kim into making concessions. Critics have expressed concerns that Trump has already given legitimacy to Kim by agreeing to meet him without gaining anything in return.
Such fears are misplaced. Tillerson's successor, Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has been well-schooled on North Korea over the past year by the intelligence community, which tends to take a pragmatic approach on the issue. Pompeo is said to be more supportive of a summit than Tillerson.
The truth is that the summit represents a gamble for both sides, with events developing fast. It was only a few weeks ago that the U.S. was bracing for a possible war with North Korea over its nuclear and missile program. There has since been a dramatic turnaround. North Korea's decision to participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea has now culminated in Trump's decision to accept an offer from Kim to meet at a summit in May.
The summit represents as much of a risk for Kim as it does for Trump, in that its failure could potentially undermine the North Korean leader's survival. Kim faces the same dilemma that confronted the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Having achieved strategic parity with the U.S., Moscow had to find ways to rescue its economy with help from the West.
It is a common assumption in Washington that international sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile program has forced Kim to the negotiating table. Trump attributes Pyongyang's change of heart to his policy of "maximum pressure" and he certainly deserves some credit.
But pressure alone does not explain why Kim has come around. It ignores the fact that in recent years economic factors have been given increased importance in Pyongyang. In March 2013, Kim announced his byungjin, or dual-track, policy that focused on both military and economic development.
Perhaps because of having been exposed to one of the world's most advanced economies during his school days in Switzerland as well as the near impossibility of competing with South Korea's economic miracle, Kim jettisoned the songun, or military-first, policy of his father in favor of a strategy of building up strategic forces in tandem with reviving the North Korean economy.
He has achieved significant results on both fronts. Progress on the strategic/military side is well known. Less recognized is that North Korea has made significant gains on the economic track as well. Before the latest tranche of sanctions, the North Korean economy was growing at nearly 4% annually, according to official South Korean estimates.
The premise of the byungjin policy is to reduce spending on the military by relying on nuclear arms, which are less expensive in the long run, and redirecting manpower and money into improving the economy. In some respects, this strategy is similar to what the U.S. has pursued in the past.
In 1950s, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower launched his "New Look" national security policy that sought to balance America's Cold War military commitments with the nation's financial resources by relying on strategic nuclear weapons to deter potential threats. President Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's former vice president, followed a similar strategy in Asia in the early 1970s by offering U.S. allies the protection of America's nuclear umbrella as Washington withdrew troops from the region.
One result of these policies was that the U.S. would deploy up to 950 nuclear weapons in South Korea between 1958 and 1992. It was this nuclear arsenal combined with U.S. threats of atomic attacks during the Korean War that arguably encouraged North Korea to begin pursuing its own nuclear weapons program.
The central contradiction of the dual-track policy, however, is that by relying on nuclear arms, it has also prompted economic sanctions on North Korea. With new sanctions piling up, Kim apparently realized it was time to hit the pause button on his nuclear and missile program.
Shortly after the launch of North Korea's latest missile, the Hwasong 15, in December, Kim said that NK had "completed" the development of its strategic capabilities. In retrospect, this statement signaled that Pyongyang realized it had gone as far as it probably could go without provoking a U.S. military response.
North Korea's accelerated nuclear and missile developments in 2017 appeared to have given Kim sufficient security confidence to allow him to turn to economic development. The success of that goal in turn depends on gaining support from the international community to which Washington holds the key.
Trump's instincts are probably correct that North Korea is very interested in talking now and possibly ready to make a deal. The question, though, is how willing is the U.S. to make concessions to achieve its goal of North Korea's denuclearization since it is clear Kim will not give up his nuclear arms unless he gets major concessions.
What would those concessions be? North Korea is generally thought to want to achieve several goals, including the reduction or elimination of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, a formal peace treaty and normalization of diplomatic ties, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, assurances that the U.S. will not seek "regime change," the lifting of economic sanctions and foreign investment to revive economy.
Kim has shown flexibility on these issues to get the talks started. He has agreed to the continuation of joint military exercises in South Korea instead of demanding their suspension as a precondition for the summit. He might even accept the continued presence of U.S. troops in South Korea after a peace treaty is signed. Why? Because Pyongyang would view the U.S. forces as offsetting the growing power of a resurgent China that Kim fears along with his neighbors. A deal with Trump would transform North Korea into a status quo power in the region.
Whether Kim would accept denuclearization, however, would also depend on overcoming any domestic opposition to this new strategy. Part of the dual-track policy has been curbing the power of the military. Under his father's military-first policy, decision-making was centralized in the National Defense Commission. But Kim since then has purged the top ranks of the military and redirected authority back to the Korean Worker's Party (KWP), while replacing the NDC in 2016 with the State Affairs Commission, which has a more civilian focus.
The shift in power as well as a clear sign that Pyongyang is interested in negotiations was shown by the North Koreans who attended the Winter Olympics ceremonies in February, where the groundwork for the Trump-Kim summit was laid. Top officials attending included North Korea's nominal head of state, a former intelligence chief who is now in charge of inter-Korean relations, and Kim's sister.
By taking these actions, North Korea has sketched out a potentially new course and Trump's agreement to meet Kim should be viewed as an important confidence-building measure in a bilateral relationship where there is no trust.
No one expects a summit will immediately solve the North Korea nuclear crisis. That will take time and will likely be marked by setbacks as both Kim and Trump must deal with domestic hardliners even as they make conciliatory steps. But a beginning to the end of the crisis may at least have begun.
John Merrill is a visiting scholar at the U.S,-Korea Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and former head of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department. John Burton, former Seoul bureau chief for the Financial Times, is a Washington, D.C. writer and editor.