Kim is still calling the shots

Kim Jong-un has played a skilful game so far; but could he over-reach with serious consequences?

Going for gold

“Kim Jong-un is playing this very well. He’s got South Korea acting as his emissary, and now an unprecedented summit with the U.S. president, all on the basis of a vague and untested commitment to denuclearization. My concern is the US is being drawn into a negotiation prematurely, without the internal coherence required to hold the North Koreans to a meaningful bargain that doesn’t compromise US interests, and those of its allies.”

Euan Graham, Director of the International Security Programme at the Lowy Institute, 9 March 2018

In an article published by The Global Lead on 2 January reflecting on Kim Jong-un’s new year message, I opined that:

“In the past 72 hours or so, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has, if anything, strengthened the grip he has had on the initiative throughout 2017 (and arguably longer).”

And on 22 February I described how North Korea had turned in a diplomatic gold medal performance at the Winter Olympics.

Against this background and amid all the clatter of the past 36 hours or so since South Korean envoys(!) visiting Washington announced that President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation from Kim Jong-un to meet, one of many interesting dimensions has been the total silence from Pyongyang. We should definitely not see this as comparable to Washington’s initial silence in response to Kim Jong-un’s new year message (noted in my 2 January article). Rather, I read this as a clear indication that (as Mr Graham, quoted above, believes) North Korea’s leader has a plan and that, so far, it is unfolding to his satisfaction.


"You just don't know. I don't think it's ever a lost cause, in spite of all the doubts and scepticism all parties should go in with clear eyes, but negotiate hard.”

Duyeon Kim, Senior Fellow Korean Peninsula Forum, 9 March 2018

To be fair, I think the same can probably be said for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who should certainly take credit for easing the door to diplomacy open from the very start of his term of office last year. Indeed, had the hawkish Park Geun-hye still been president I doubt we would have seen any of the developments of the past 10 weeks or so.

Nevertheless, it would still be correct to say that, since the turn of the year at least, Moon Jae-in has largely been responding to North Korea’s lead, albeit while looking for — and finding — ways to open the diplomacy door still further. As the BBC’s Laura Bicker puts it:

“He is the one who spotted the opportunity during the North Korean leader’s speech in January — which offered a glimmer of hope that the reclusive state was willing to engage with the South — and grabbed it with both hands.”

But her article goes on to pose the very legitimate question as to whether…

“…Moon Jae-in — and indeed Donald Trump — [is] being manipulated by a North Korea which has fooled the world before?”.

She also recalls that Moon Jae-in played an important role as President Roo Moo-hyun’s Chief-of-Staff in the second (and most recent) Inter-Korean summit in 2007 which ultimately ended in failure after Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, staged a satellite launch…but only after he had extracted USD4.5bn in aid. As Duyeon Kim (quoted earlier), reflecting on Moon Jae-in’s undoubted desire to learn from that failure and finish what he started, notes:

"He's basically following the same playbook as his two liberal predecessors. It's exactly the kind of thing he would want to pick up and continue."

[Note: The reference to “two liberal predecessors” sweeps up the first Inter-Korean Summit where the South was represented by President Kim Dae Jung.]

The good news is that Moon Jae-in undoubtedly fully understands that he is taking a huge, if calculated, political gamble. The bad news is that he is doing so despite the fact that, if/when push comes to shove, he really has little, if any, control over the two main protagonists, ie Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

As for America…

“The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined.”

President Donald Trump (on Twitter), 9 March 2018

However, I am struggling to believe that either Mr Trump (or, to judge from his public utterances over the impact of sanctions, Vice President Mike Pence) has a similar understanding.

This being said, I accept that the significant ramping up of sanctions since Mr Trump came to office, including by China, has inflicted some real pain on Pyongyang. But I am personally very inclined to the views expressed by the BBC’s Karishma Vaswani in January when she was assessing North Korea’s willingness to engage with the South, as follows.

“Let's be realistic. Kim Jong-un isn't desperate yet. Sanctions and a weaker economy aren't going to have the regime discarding its nuclear goals. And there are still plenty of ways for it to make money, including via the latest asset class to hit markets — cryptocurrencies. But it IS possible to see why North Korea may be more inclined to head to the negotiating table — especially with South Korea which has already said it may consider removing some sanctions temporarily during next month's Winter Olympics. So practical concerns may outweigh nuclear needs for now, especially as North Korea has proved what it has always said it would: that it is a real nuclear force to be reckoned with.”

This last point is, I think, particularly important, ie that one key reason why the North Koreans may be open to negotiations may well be because they now have the technical capability to strike the US with a nuclear warhead. (Or, at least, if they are not already there very quickly to get to this point should they go for ‘break-out’.) And yet, despite poring over a great deal of commentary on the proposed North Korea/US summit, with the exception of comments by former Defence Secretary William Perry, I have barely seen reference to it.

Which is not, of course, to deny Ms Vaswani’s point in a 9 March article that:

“The regime's elite, who Kim Jong-un needs to keep on side for his legitimacy, won't like [one-third of the economy being effectively wiped out]. But more unnerving for Pyongyang could well be how much worse things may become.”

But, as Ms Vaswani concludes:

“…just because North Korea's economy may be hurting, doesn't mean Mr Kim's invitation to Donald Trump should be seen as an act of weakness”.

It is, in my view, essential that the US Administration (whose handling, so far, of Mr Trump’s spontaneous acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s invitation has not been entirely consistent — to the point where some officials are even briefing, off-the-record, that they doubt the summit will actually happen) gets this message on board if it is not to risk major miscalculations.

Three major potential pitfalls

“I don’t think [the North Koreans are] going to want to negotiate giving up all their nuclear weapons. But even if they did…I have no idea how we could verify it.”

Former Defence Secretary William Perry (quoted in The Atlantic), 9 March 2018

Nevertheless, let us assume that US officials who are sceptical about the summit ever taking place are ultimately proved wrong, and move on to the substantive hurdles.

First and foremost is, to my mind, the issue of what ‘denuclearisation’ actually means. Here, I turn to Duyeon Kim, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, writing in 8 March Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, as follows.

“North Korea says it is willing to denuclearize and has no reason to possess nuclear weapons if the military threat against it is removed and the regime’s security guaranteed. Past North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il declared the same heavily conditional position. It is noteworthy that Kim Jong-un has done so too, but should still raise serious doubts.

The statement highlights the different understandings of ‘denuclearization’ by the countries involved, forecasting difficult and complicated negotiations ahead. During the Six Party Talks (from 2003 to 2008), Pyongyang demanded that the language in agreements (between the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States) refer to ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ instead of ‘denuclearization of North Korea’ as originally planned. This showed the North’s lingering suspicion that American tactical nuclear weapons were still stationed in South Korea, even though they were withdrawn in 1991. Moreover, past statements suggest that Kim Jong-un’s regime wants arms control talks with Washington, and might denuclearize if both sides reciprocally reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear weapons.

For Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, on the other hand, ‘denuclearization’ simply means a nuclear weapons-free North Korea.”

This takes us to a second question, ie even if North Korea does not insist on being treated as an equal by the US in mutual nuclear disarmament talks, what price would Pyongyang demand to agree to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Again, Duyeon Kim is instructive.

“Then there is the question of what is meant by ‘threat’ and ‘security’. In past negotiations, Pyongyang said it would only consider itself unthreatened and secure if the United States and South Korea ended their alliance and treaty, all US forces left South Korea, and the United States ceased to maintain the nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan. Once these were abolished and the North felt secure, it said, it would consider denuclearization.

To the other parties involved, though, ‘security’ for the North means that the United States promises not to invade or topple the country after denuclearization, and will seek to ensure its political and economic survival.”

Writing in The Atlantic on 9 March, Thomas Wright, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, recalled an interview given last year by Steve Bannon, then still at the White House, where he claimed that Mr Trump...

“…might consider a deal in which China got North Korea to freeze its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula”.

As Mr Wright continues, Kim Jong-un’s offer to negotiate one-on-one with the US President begs the question of…

“What will [Mr] Trump say if Kim [Jong-un] offers him this deal or something even better—the dismantling of [his] ICBMs in exchange for the full withdrawal of US troops from South Korea?”

I agree with Mr Wright that such a move “would be widely regarded as an unmitigated disaster for the United States”, signalling “that the United States cares little for its friends and is only concerned about direct threats to the homeland”. But I also think he is correct to flag three reasons why Mr Trump might ‘buy’ such a deal, ie:

  • Mr Trump, to judge from his own words, does indeed seem to care more about a possible threat to the US itself more than anything else;
  • He has always had concerns about the US’s alliances in general and with South Korea in particular;
  • He sees himself as the world’s greatest dealmaker, while rejecting more or less totally any line of approach which has been pursued by one or other of his predecessors.

To these, I would add (as I have on many occasions previously considering both North Korea and other issues) Mr Trump’s obsession with his personal approval rating and the relationship between it and his delivering (or otherwise) on his pre-election commitments, as highlighted by top psephologist Nate Silver. Mr Silver flagged a military strike against North Korea as a possible ‘wag the dog’ action by Mr Trump, especially in the run-up to the 2018 or 2020 elections; but if a ‘deal’ were to allow the US President to claim he had delivered on his pledge that there was “no way” in which he would allow Pyongyang to acquire the capacity to hit the US with a nuclear warhead, why not?

Third, as William Perry highlighted, there is indeed the question of verification. In an article summarising how the US has been gulled by the North Koreans on verification in the past, The New York Times’s (NYT) David E Sanger quotes Mr Perry as follows.

“How could we possibly verify such an agreement? We don’t know how many nuclear weapons they have operational or under construction; we don’t know where all their nuclear facilities are; and we have never implemented a treaty that counts warheads, simply because it is so difficult to verify. Our nuclear treaties with the Soviet Union and Russia counted missiles, not warheads. So it is a fundamental error to think that we could reliably verify a treaty by which North Korea agreed to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons.”

As if all this didn’t present challenges enough, there is also a real dearth of relevant expertise in the US Administration, as I noted in my article of yesterday. Preparing the ground for the summit, not to mention the principal US actor, therefore looks to be little short of daunting.

Tremors in Tokyo

“Anyone can say that one has the intention to denuclearize. So far North Korea has done the same twice, to save time to develop nuclear weapons. So Japan’s stance is unchanged. It’s necessary for them to show concrete actions.”

Taro Kono, Foreign Minister of Japan, 9 March 2019

Given just these factors, it is hardly surprising that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quick to phone Mr Trump after the summit had been announced. As Tobias Harris of Teneo Intelligence has noted:

“I think there’s real concern about a deal-maker president talking one-on-one with Kim [Jong-un]…. The Japanese government obviously wants the North Korean threat resolved. But I don’t think Japanese officials are naïve about the difficulty of achieving a truly meaningful disarmament agreement under these circumstances.”

Mr Abe is set to meet Mr Trump in Washington next month and will no doubt try to impress on him the unreliability of North Korean ‘commitments’ and seek assurances as to the US President’s intentions.

Benefits to Beijing?

“Does China want Kim [Jong-un] to determine the future of Northeast Asia? China wants to define the future of Asia. The United States is a Pacific power and wants to protect and grow its place in Asia. However China doesn’t want North Korea as a nuclear state. The United States doesn’t want that. There maybe common ground there.”

Wendy R Sherman, Senior Fellow Belfer Center at Harvard University, 9 March 2018

Throughout the past year, China has repeatedly urged the US to come to the table with the North Koreans. But this certainly does not mean that the Chinese will be giving an unqualified welcome to the proposed summit — as is more than somewhat underlined by Beijing’s low-key initial official response.

For sure, China would no doubt be happy with an outcome which led to North Korea scrapping its nuclear weapons in return for the complete withdrawal of the US military from the Korean peninsula. But, notwithstanding the belief in some quarters that Mr Trump might strike such an agreement, I doubt that Beijing sees it as a likely outcome.

At the same time, the Chinese will be acutely aware of the possible consequences of a failed summit/process. As the NYT’s Max Fisher put it:

“When legislative efforts have stalled, Mr. Trump has at times lashed out. In domestic politics, that can mean publicly denigrating his target or pressuring them to resign. In a heavily militarized standoff between nuclear powers, the stakes would be higher.”

Furthermore, I am sure they would have preferred something lower key to start with in any case, probably a return to the six-party format which would have given China a seat at the table and, therefore, more sway over the talks (in theory at least).

As it is, Beijing may offer to host the summit (as a ‘neutral’ venue). But I doubt that this would suit either Pyongyang or Washington. I therefore lean towards Panmunjon, which would likely suit Seoul and which is where the third Inter-Korean Summit is set to be held towards the end of April.

The risk of over-reach

“The thing that they have in common is that both of them think that they can outsmart the other. We’ll have to wait to see who’s right.”

Ralph A Cossa, President of the Pacific Forum CSIS, 9 March 2018

So little is known about Kim Jong-un that it is impossible to say if he is prone to hubris. However, he must be very satisfied with the way things have evolved over the past few weeks. As the NYT’s Mr Fisher reflects:

“For North Korea, high-level talks are a big win in their own right. Mr. Kim seeks to transform his country from a rogue pariah into an established nuclear power, a peer to the United States, a player on the international stage. That wins Mr. Kim international acknowledgment and heightened status, as well as significant domestic credibility…. Mr. Trump is granting Mr. Kim that victory, thereby surrendering one of the United States’ last remaining opportunities to extract something from North Korea, without getting anything demonstrable in return.”

But there is no reason to suppose that Kim Jong-un will be satisfied with this alone. Indeed, he will almost certainly come to the table with a whole plethora of objectives.

While there is currently much focus relative to the summit on Mr Trump’s personality, I think it would also be fair to say that a great deal could depend on Kim Jong-un’s approach. And there is, in my view, a real risk that he could fall into the trap of overestimating the strength of his hand and how far he can push the US President. After all, even though there are certainly more people in Pyongyang who have had dealings with US officials than there are in Washington who have experience of the North Koreans, past experience does not necessarily equip them well for handling the Trump Administration and it would be easy to make a serious misjudgement.

As CNN’s Chris Cillizza puts it:

“These are two men who have spent a lifetime creating their own realities…that often don't comport with established facts. They are also trained performers, focused as much — if not more — on perception rather than reality. When they sit down together, can they put aside the posturing and the gamesmanship and get something real done? Or will this moment — like so many with Kim [Jong-un] and [Donald] Trump individually — devolve into just another episode of reality TV, with each man trying to one-up the other in a game of whose nuclear button is bigger?

The answer to that question is critical for the future not just of the United States but of the world.”

Alastair Newton

[Image: A TV screen shows images of Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump (Ahn Young-joon/AP)]