Kim Jong Un has been making peace overtures at a dizzying pace, including pledging to shut a nuclear test site this month and allowing journalists and others watch it get dismantled.
The North Korea leader’s seemingly overnight transformation from warmonger to peacemaker has diplomats and analysts pondering one central question: Why?
The change was triggered by a variety of factors, including pressure from economic sanctions, fears of a U.S. strike and perhaps the most critical — Kim’s confidence that his nuclear program is already a credible threat, analysts say.
“Kim seems satisfied with his deterrent force structure as he said in this New Year’s address,” said Michael Elleman, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I suspect it has been his plan all along to open 2018 with a charm offensive.”
Thae Yong Ho, a North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, predicted last year, long before the current diplomatic offensive, that Kim would offer to suspend testing and begin negotiations once he developed a credible nuclear threat.
But Kim’s diplomatic initiative was launched before his nuclear weapons were fully developed, suggesting that economic sanctions and Trump’s threats also played a role in his calculus.
North Korea has an arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching U.S. cities, but they are unreliable and more testing would be required to improve their effectiveness, experts say.
“He does not yet have viable, operational capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland reliably,” Elleman said.
It remains unclear whether Kim is serious about dismantling his nuclear program, but he has clearly seized the diplomatic initiative.
The overtures have helped persuade Trump to press ahead with his own plans to meet with Kim. Trump suggested Monday that a summit could take place in the demilitarized zone, where Kim met last week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The choice of the DMZ could be viewed in diplomatic terms as a concession to Kim since it would mean Trump traveling to a location near the North Korean leader. Trump offered the hopes of a “great celebration” there if talks are successful.
A year ago, Trump and Kim were trading insults, raising worries about a war on the Korean peninsula. Trump pledged to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it carried out its threats against the United States.
Threats from Trump may have prompted Kim to negotiate with the nuclear capabilities he has now instead of risk losing them in a U.S. strike.
Kim’s long-term plan to negotiate once his nuclear capabilities were fully developed was “possibly altered to some extent by the policy of Donald Trump,” said Fyodor Tertitskiy, an analyst at NK News, which tracks developments in North Korea.
Economic pressure also played a role. Kim wanted to get out from under international sanctions, which have hurt the country’s economy.
“Economic reform has been a consistent, high-priority objective for Kim and his regime,” Elleman said. “That can only happen if the sanctions are lifted.”
As Kim wrestled with those pressures, Moon provided an opportunity for diplomacy. Reconciliation with the North was central to Moon’s administration when it assumed power last year.
Moon moved quickly, extending an offer to North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics held earlier this year in South Korea.
North Korea’s acceptance was a diplomatic breakthrough leading to last week’s summit between Moon and Kim, where the two agreed to pursue a peace treaty between the two countries. Kim followed with a promise to suspend testing and close the nuclear site.
“Seoul has been very creative in creating a positive atmosphere for talks,” Elleman said.