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North Korea held its fifth plenary session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea from Dec. 28 to Dec. 31. / Image: Rodong Shinmun

North Korea recently expressed the intent to rescind its “moratorium on inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches and nuclear testing” in its report from the fifth plenary session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). In response to this, however, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification focused on the fact that North Korea did not “declare an end” to US-North Korea talks and promised that South Korea will continue its efforts to “advance denuclearization negotiations.” In short, the Moon Jae In government has suggested a victory of sorts given that North Korea refrained from announcing the end of US-DPRK talks. 

In his speech to the plenary session, Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.” This comment suggests that North Korea intends to modify its behavior in line with the attitude shown by the US and, one can assume, leaves the door open for future negotiations. 

Kim did note, however, that denuclearization would never come about “if the United States persists in its hostile policies against North Korea.” In other words, the North Korean leader said that his country may denuclearize if the US ends its “hostile policies.” Some observers believe that US-DPRK talks can resume given these statements. 

THE POTENTIAL FOR DIALOGUE REMAINS, BUT…

History shows that negotiations can even happen during wartime. This means that there are rarely cases in which negotiations completely ground to a halt; indeed, declaring the “end of talks” is little more than hyperbole. One party to a set of negotiations may declare the end of talks, but there are many cases where they just end up continuing dialogue due to changing political circumstances. Beyond the question of whether North Korea declared an end to US-DPRK negotiations or not, the reality is that the potential for continued talks between the two countries remains open. 

Still, it would be a mistake to think that the recent plenary session was merely a piece of hardline showmanship aimed at ensuring North Korea gets the upper hand in future negotiations with the US. During the plenary session, Kim Jong Un described the deadlock between the US and North Korea as part of a “long confrontation” and even acknowledged the fact that North Korea must continue to live under the sanctions of hostile forces.

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A scene from the fifth plenary session of the 7th Central Committee, held from Dec. 28 to Dec. 31. / Image: Rodong Shinmun

Kim added that “we urgently need external environment [sic] favorable for the economic construction…we can never sell our dignity which we have so far defended as valuable as our own life, in hope for brilliant transformation.” These comments suggest that Kim sees relations with the US as unlikely to improve for the time being. Rather, he emphasized his aim to overcome difficult times through policies encouraging North Korea’s “self-reliance.” 

Kim was also quoted during the plenary session as saying that “If there were not the nuclear issue, the U.S. would find fault with us under other issue, and the U.S. military and political threats would not end.” Although Kim has said that North Korea may denuclearize if the US rescinds its hostile policy towards North Korea, it appears he considers that an unlikely possibility. Assuming that the US will continue to criticize North Korea on matters like freedom or human rights – at least as long as the country fails to change its political system – Kim’s prediction that the US will not rescind its hostile North Korea policies may, in fact, be accurate. 

Kim assumes that the US will continue to remain hostile to his country and has committed his country to a long-term standoff with the US. It was within this context that he said during the plenary session that “the prevailing situation goes to prove that the road of defending ourselves by bolstering up our power sufficiently enough to keep the hostile forces at bay…is the [path we will walk down] without any halt and hesitation.” This statement can be read as a declaration that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the plenary session report suggests that North Korea favors confrontation over negotiations with the US.

NORTH KOREA MAY WANT TO TALK – BUT NOT ABOUT DENUCLEARIZATION

Of course, North Korea is not planning to wrangle with the US forever. When the US presidential election ends later this year, North Korea will most likely shift its foreign policy to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations. Those negotiations, however, won’t be focused on denuclearization. North Korea has spared no efforts to develop its nuclear weapons capabilities this past year, and clearly intends to return to the negotiating table with the US as a de facto nuclear power. 

The South Korean government may believe it is a positive sign for future denuclearization talks that Kim did not officially declare the end of US-North Korea talks at the plenary session. South Korean officials, however, should think deeply about what the North Koreans really want. South Korea’s efforts to facilitate US-North Korea talks and bring about a denuclearization summit in 2018 are, of course, praiseworthy. However, these efforts did not produce their desired outcomes. The Moon administration’s efforts to bring about North Korean denuclearization may be admirable, but his government must also recognize the fact that the situation they are facing has changed. South Korean policy makers can adopt realistic measures to deal with North Korea in 2020 only if they confront reality as it is.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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