A quarter century of mistrust and violated agreements would seem to offer little room for optimism ahead of an upcoming summit between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. History, however, is not a straitjacket, and past patterns are not destined to repeat, even if they continue to exert strong influence.
If a chance exists for a different outcome, it comes not only from political will, but also from the changing circumstances in and around the Korean Peninsula. The very fact that Pyongyang and Washington are in discussions to plan a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is, itself, a sign of those changes.
A willingness to have meetings at the highest level marks a major divergence from past interactions between the two nations, even if the baseline demands have not changed. The U.S. continues to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. North Korea continues to demand that the U.S. remove nuclear weapon-capable aircraft from South Korea, offer a security guarantee that it will not attack North Korea or undermine its government, replace the current Korean Armistice Agreement with a peace accord, and establish formal diplomatic relations.
But these are tactical issues, not strategic drivers of engagement. North Korea’s drive for deliverable nuclear weapons has long been tied to a desire to ensure regime security. But survival—for a regime or a nation—is not a static goal as global circumstances constantly shift. The rise of China and the revival of Japan leave the Korean Peninsula once again the minnow between whales, and a divided Korea is an exploitable Korea. Regime survival depends upon national strength, and neither isolation nor the goodwill of China and Russia are sufficient for North Korea’s freedom of maneuver. The changing regional balance of power compels Pyongyang to break from its past pattern of isolationism.
China’s rise also changes the priorities in Washington. For more than a decade and a half, the U.S. has been engaged in an overseas war against non-state actors. Now the strategic realities of peer competition and the recognition that globalization will never lead to a borderless world are refocusing the U.S. strategic vision and China is squarely at the center. A shift in relations with North Korea could present the U.S. with the ability to reshape its strategic posture in Asia, a lower-scale echo of Nixon’s opening with China during the Cold War. U.S. forces in the Korean Peninsula are largely held hostage to the Korean standoff and therefore ill-structured to address the broader strategic challenges in the region. In addition, a neutral or even cooperative North Korea could be seen by China as part of an expanding belt of American containment.
These are broad strategic concepts, and in reality such ideas are often overtaken by near-term constraints and realities. Yet there is a serious opportunity for change on this front as well; the leaders of both nations are relatively new and have unorthodox governing approaches.
Trump has shown he doesn’t hold himself to the same political constraints normally felt by a U.S. president. This creates the space for actions that would not be considered politically feasible by more traditional career politicians. Even the very act of accepting a summit with Kim before lower-level meetings have played out represents a break with political norms. And in dialogue with Kim, Trump’s strong rhetoric against the young North Korean leader could shield him at home from accusations of “giving in” to the North.
In Pyongyang, the differences are even more significant. Kim represents the third generation of this North Korean regime and its ruling elite, and is shaped by a very different set of experiences than his predecessors were. While these generations are connected through policy and the momentum of history, the current North Korean leader has more room to maneuver than his father and grandfather did.
The first generation, led by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, were the true revolutionaries who fought the Japanese and Americans and built North Korea. The second generation, led by Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il, were mostly educated in the Eastern Bloc, particularly the Soviet Union or China, and often in the technocratic fields. But by the 1990s, North Korean elites were beginning to follow China’s example and sending their children to school in Western Europe.
The result is that this third generation, now moving into the ranks of power in North Korea, has a greater understanding and interaction with the West compared to their parents, who came of age at the height of the Cold War. Additionally, the new generation has a different understanding of methods to retain power and influence in a more open, economically connected North Korea.
Since the mid-1990s, North Korea had also stemmed most of its terrorism abroad, meaning that there are fewer members of this third generation that had any active role in those decisions. That frees them up for dialogue with South Korea, as one of the restrictions on their elders was the global effort to hold individual leaders responsible for their actions in international courts and tribunals.
Kim Jong Un and his regime’s experiences—and changing circumstances—open them to new options if and when they sit down for direct talks with Trump. The question is whether this shift can converge with the current U.S. political climate to realize a different outcome to peace talks this time around.
Rodger Baker is vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence firm producing analysis and forecasting that empower businesses, governments, and globally engaged professionals.