Switching sides? Kim Jong-un could be exploring the possibility of becoming an American ally

24 Mar 2018

The announcement that General Secretary Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump will meet at a summit in May 2018 took the world by surprise. Trump had hinted at a possible meeting in May 2016 when in a throwaway line he said, “I would have no problem speaking to him.” As president, however, he threatened Kim with “fire and fury”. When Secretary of State Tillerson gestured at talks, Trump mocked him.

On 9 March 2018, North Korea dramatically changed its stance towards the US and South Korea. When the South Korean national security director announced that Trump and Kim would meet in a summit he noted that Pyongyang was “committed” to denuclearisation, that the North would stop all nuclear and missile tests and that it understood US-South Korean military drills would carry on.

Why has Kim seemingly climbed down from his commitment to nuclearisation, insistence on testing and opposition to US-South Korean military exercises?

One possibility is Kim is playing around with Trump and South Korean President Moon. In the talks with Moon and later Trump, he would turn again, making them an offer they must refuse: the withdrawal of US troops from the south as a condition for denuclearisation. What he would minimally achieve is the breaking of a taboo. No US president has met a North Korean supremo; the summit would erase that taboo. No matter what its result, the summit would also help signal the legitimacy of Kim’s rule in North Korea. Pyongyang wants full diplomatic recognition for the north, and a meeting with the US president would help achieve this goal.

Kim may also be buying time. The international community has strengthened North Korean sanctions. Pyongyang may use the talks to slow the sanctions and find clandestine ways around them – something it has done in the past. Perhaps Kim hopes that Moscow and Beijing will change their minds on the sanctions after his summit with Trump, particularly if he can make it seem the US and South Korea wrecked the talks.

A more dramatic possibility is that North Korea is looking to change strategic sides. In 1972, Mao’s China did just that. It brought its conflict with Moscow to a head and decided to ally with Washington. Pyongyang’s annoyance with China has been visible for some time. Historically, China lorded it over Korea, going back hundreds of years. That effectively ended in 1910 when Japan annexed Korea. But since 1950 Beijing has once again become Korea’s big brother, which rankles.

Is Kim exploring the possibility of changing sides and becoming an American-South Korean ally in exchange for recognition of the legitimacy of his rule? Clearly, Pyongyang would not become a formal ally. But it could sign a no-war pact with the US and the south, receive food and other aid, and open up to foreign investment.

There are dangers. China could be provoked to cause military trouble. Changing sides would entail Washington warning Beijing to lay off – just as it told Moscow to do so after the Soviet-Chinese military clashes along the Ussuri River in 1969. Is it just possible that the US would even accept a North Korean nuclear weapons programme in this strategic reversal as a way of constructing a buffer between China and South Korea and complicating Beijing’s strategic calculus in the Asia-Pacific?

Changing sides is not without the danger that the US could double-cross Kim at some point and work for his removal. He could be removed by an internal coup and put on trial before an international tribunal. If Kim is thinking of changing sides, he must weigh up which danger is greater – Chinese antagonism or a US double cross.

It is hard to know what is in Kim’s mind. At the very least, a summit with Trump will put Beijing on notice and increase Pyongyang’s bargaining hand with its great northern neighbour.

Kanti Bajpai

Director, Centre on Asia and Globalisation and Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies