Scenarios for North Korea

Why has Kim Jong-un decided to enter peace talks with South Korea now? There are several possibilities. He could be trying to reintegrate his country with the global community, maneuvering for tactical advantage or preparing for an exit from power. The latter carries the most risk and could destabilize the region.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in hold hands in the air triumphantly during an April 27, 2018 meeting
The April summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in was the first between the leaders of the two nations since 2007. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • North Korea may be trying to reintegrate with the global community
  • But Kim Jong-un could only be seeking a tactical advantage
  • In the worst case, Mr. Kim is getting ready for an exit from power

As the developments on the Korean Peninsula unfold, pundits and the press are struggling to assess the situation. While some rejoice in the newfound goodwill between North and South, others recall that both countries have been here before. It might help to take the same view that Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (1949-1976) took when considering the events of 1968 in France: “It is too early to tell” what the outcome will be.

But while it may be too early to determine exactly why events are happening as they are and where they will lead, we can analyze the main causes.

North Korea’s motivations are pivotal to the current peace talks. For outsiders (virtually everyone is an outsider when it comes to the workings of the regime in Pyongyang) it may be helpful to think about these motivations while devising different scenarios that might arise. Each would answer a different motivation and would lead to a specific outcome.

Here, we will briefly describe three scenarios. They consider different motivations behind why North Korea has decided to engage in peace talks with the South now, and they set out a potential course of events these motivations might prompt. In considering how these scenarios may impact geopolitics, we will call them “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.”

The ‘good’ scenario

At least according to state ideology, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) exists to provide peace and plenty. While the country’s first leader, Kim Il-sung (1948-1994), had to fight for independence and his successor, Kim Jong-il (1994-2011), had to strive for consolidation, the present supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, might be willing to fulfill that promise. Not in a romantic sense: he would simply pursue international acceptance of the status quo. Kim Jong-un knows that goal is possible, because Chinese support and North Korea’s nuclear capability mean his country is not under any immediate threat.

From Pyongyang’s perspective, the next step is to seek integration into the global political system and economy.

He has already been partially successful. South Korea accepted (importantly, this does not mean “recognized”) the North as a separate entity. Until some months ago, the official discourse in the South would never have accepted or acknowledged the existence of a border dividing the Korean peninsula. Yet, during recent talks, the South spoke of “two Koreas.”

From Pyongyang’s perspective, the next step is to seek integration into the global political system and economy. Through this, Mr. Kim could ensure at least the inflow of aid and perhaps even commerce. He needs both to feed his people and to increase his fortune.

If this is truly North Korea’s motivation, it could lead to several positive consequences. In the North, Mr. Kim would solidify his power and his people would be better off, albeit minimally. Geopolitically, one of the most significant sources of friction in the Pacific would recede. On a personal level, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and United States President Donald Trump would benefit, since all of them could claim some of the credit for the normalization of North-South relations.

The ‘bad’ scenario

Again, according to state ideology, North Korea’s revolution is unceasing and worldwide; those who have been through the revolution and adhere to its “Juche” dogma are better people. Therefore, it is the supreme leader’s task not only to continue the revolution, but also to see that his country always profits, even (or especially) at the expense of others. Following this line of thought, it might be that Mr. Kim’s maneuvers are just a political tactic.

If so, it is difficult to determine the goal. The North might need international aid and/or money and the talks could lead to embargoes on the country being eased. The North could be relocating military and nuclear research and production facilities, and the closing of the old ones is a mere bargaining chip. Pyongyang may simply want to create an atmosphere of confusion.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il stand together at the airport in Pyongyang, June 13, 2000
The leaders of North and South Korea have met before, to little effect. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. There was no breakthrough. © dpa

North Korea has made moves like this before. Examples include a 2000 summit between Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and another in 2007 between Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). Both meetings took place in the DPRK. Ahead of the second visit, President Roh crossed the demarcation line at Panmunjom by foot. Nothing came of such high-profile displays of goodwill.

If the past is any indication, soon after attaining its tactical goals, North Korea would find a reason for reversing course, closing up again and continuing its military programs. There are also policy changes in other countries – like South Korea, the U.S. or China – that might prompt a reversal. Regardless, in the “bad” scenario, North Korea’s new openness to diplomacy is just a tactic for attaining short-term goals. Policy reversal would follow quickly, and tensions would flare up again. Mr. Kim’s back and forth during recent weeks – disarming, rearming borders, threatening not to meet with President Trump – might indicate this is the path North Korea is taking.



The ugly scenario is not based on North Korean state ideology but on Kim Jung-un’s self-interest: He may want to step down and leave the DPRK. In this scenario, the momentary opening of the North would be instrumental for crafting a persona committed to normalization and peace, while giving Mr. Kim the possibility to negotiate international safeguards, maintain his wealth and even gain asylum.

There are many reasons Mr. Kim might want to leave North Korea. The country could be worse off than it looks (and by all accounts it looks very bad). He could have come to recognize how unsustainable his country’s system is. Or perhaps he is just not willing to keep dealing with the machinations of power under Juche rule every day.

It remains unclear if Kim Jong-un would be doing this on his own or after having struck a deal with his generals, and possibly with China. So far, the meeting with China and the talks with the South still seem to be on track, and President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un may yet take place. This points to coordination with the generals and the Workers’ Party. After all, in 2007, the last time a North Korean leader wanted to negotiate with the South, the generals sabotaged the talks. Even if the generals are weaker under the third Kim than they were under the second, they would not sit idly by as they lose their power.

The more important question is what becomes of the North after Kim Jong-un. He could leave the country in the hands of the generals, which would be in line with the coordination scenario. He might even leave his sister, Kim Yo-jong, as a Kim-family figurehead. She has met with President Moon and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and was present at the recent talks with the South. North Korea could also closely associate itself with China, possibly under some formula of “one country, many systems.”

This scenario is “ugly” because it carries myriad risks. Mr. Kim leaving North Korea weakens its system and could cause the country of 25 million people to implode. It is unclear how its people, military capabilities (including nuclear weapons systems) and the borders would be managed. Even if the scenario of association with China allowed it to quickly take control before the situation got out of hand, such a strengthening of Beijing’s hand would significantly increase tensions in a region wary of growing Chinese military power.

Time to plan

The three scenarios sketched out here are exercises in possibilities, not probabilities. They take different causes into account, including North Korea’s state ideology, Kim Jong-un’s own self-interest, domestic pressures, the North’s economic realities, and history. Based on various assessments of these drivers, each scenario presents a potential outcome. There is no guarantee any of them will materialize, but considering them can help draw some conclusions about the future.

For now, the probability that any of these scenarios will occur as described above is low. However, they point toward mechanisms to look out for while watching events unfold. Though it is certainly too early to predict the outcomes of North Korean peace talks, it is never too soon to plan.

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