North Korea: Kim continues to call the shots

The prospect of North/South dialogue exacerbates President Donald Trump’s North Korea dilemma.

A “groundbreaking chance”?

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).

His new year message appears to be a carefully calculated move aimed at deepening an already existing rift between Seoul and Washington.

It was pretty much a given that his offer to Seoul of immediate talks with a view to North Korean participation in next month’s Winter Olympics, which South Korea is hosting, would be welcomed by President Moon Jae-in who has been actively promoting dialogue since he was elected in May of last year. His party — The Minjoo Party of Korea — has always tended to a more reconciliatory line with North Korea than his predecessor Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party. So, it should come as no surprise that Seoul has swiftly responded with an offer of a “high-level” meeting at the ‘truce-village’ of Panmunjom on 9 January to pursue what Moon Jae-in has described as a “groundbreaking chance” to move towards peace.

[Note: Assuming this meeting takes place it will be the first since December 2015, which centred on efforts to reopen the Kaesong industrial facility but which ended without agreement.]

As the deadline for registrations for the Winter Olympics has past, ultimately it will be up to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to decide whether to issue an invitation. But I think it now very likely indeed that North Korea’s only two qualifiers, figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik (pictured), will compete at Pyeongchang.

It does, of course, remain to be seen whether this will lead to a sustained breakthrough between the two Koreas on other fronts, consistent with Kim Jong-un’s statement that:

"The year 2018 is a significant year for both the North and the South, with the North marking the 70th anniversary of its birth and the South hosting the Winter Olympics. We should melt the frozen North-South relations, thus adorning this meaningful year as a year to be specially recorded in the history of the nation.”

However, it is reasonable at this stage to assume that both sides are serious about using the Winter Olympics as a foundation for wider discussions. As South Korea’s Unification Minister, Cho Myoung-gyon:

"We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties.”

Whither Washington?

It may just be because of the holiday period. But there has been a deafening silence from Washington (including President Donald Trump’s failure, so far, to tweet in response) since Kim Jong-un coupled his ‘olive branch’ to Seoul with a nuclear warning to the US, suggesting that officials there have been taken by surprise.

To be fair, there is nothing much new in the threat beyond an undoubtedly hyperbolic claim from Kim Jong-un to have “the nuclear button” on his desk and the (probably) more realistic warning that North Korea will now start “mass producing” nuclear weapons.

[Note: There are several reasons to doubt that the North Koreans could launch a successful nuclear strike against the US at the drop of a hat, as Kim Jong-un’s statement seems intended to imply. First and foremost is the fact that, to date, all their tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have involved liquid (not solid) fuel which takes hours, if not days, to load.]

Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un has still presented Washington with a problem in that the mere fact of dialogue with South Korea runs strongly against the tough line, including on dialogue, which Mr Trump has been pursuing (even to the point of publicly putting down Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for suggesting that talks would be welcome). Especially if such talks were to move swiftly on to some sort of relief from the sanctions which are gripping North Korea increasingly tightly (and I don’t think this is a big ‘if’), I doubt Mr Trump would be very happy, to put it mildly.

Even before things are likely to get to that point, this all casts doubt over the annual South Korea/US military exercises, Foal Eagle/Key Resolve, which traditionally kick off in February. Seoul has already floated the idea of postponing until later in the year. I think now it is likely to insist on doing so despite the risk that Mr Trump sees such a move as a loss of face — possibly to the point where he may even revert to his threat to scrap the South Korea/US bilateral trade deal (KORUS), which is already under review.

The 2 January edition of The Economist Espresso summed up the context nicely, in my view, under the heading “Donald’s dilemma”, as follows.

“Kim Jong Un’s quest for a nuclear bomb that can hit the continental United States will test President Donald Trump’s deepest instincts and define America’s position in the world. Will he opt for diplomacy or war? Mr Trump could fall back on deterrence and containment. But that would leave American cities vulnerable to a North Korean strike. Or he could break with the past and use force, risking war and a catastrophic loss of life in north-east Asia. Mr Trump’s choice will test America’s alliances with South Korea and Japan, while around the world other partners will study how he weighs their interests. The president’s choice will also shape the century-defining relationship between America and China: the two superpowers could end up working together more closely, or fighting each other. For 25 years American presidents have been able to avoid choosing between diplomacy and military action. Mr Trump does not have that luxury.”

Jaw-jaw or war-war?

Mr Trump’s dilemma is further deepened by the fact that he publicly declared about 12 months ago that there was “no way” North Korea would be allowed to acquire the ability to launch a successful nuclear strike against the US. If the past year has taught him one thing (and other actions suggest that he fully understands this lesson) it is that his personal approval ratings — still around historic lows despite an uptick since the tax reform bill passed — tend to go up when he fulfils his pre-election pledges and down when he fails to do so. Admittedly, he made this particular pledge post-election but I suspect it still counts in his mind.

Given his clear obsession with his ratings it is reasonable to suppose that, especially with the midterms now looming and Republican fortunes tied to an extent at least to voters’ perception of the President, Mr Trump will do whatever he can to sustain and bolster them. It is also likely, as is the norm at this point in the election cycle, that such actions will increasingly be focused on his international, rather than domestic, agenda.

This, in turn, takes me to a late August quote from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight which I have used repeatedly over the past four months, ie:

“…an issue that Americans aren’t thinking about very much now — say, a military confrontation with North Korea — could be pivotal in the 2018 and 2020 elections”.

I very much agree with the principle Mr Silver is expressing here, ie the non-negligible probability that Mr Trump will resort to some sort of ‘Wag the Dog’-type action at some point in 2018. And, although I see a military strike of some sort against North Korea as the least likely of the three possibilities I have floated (ie less likely than a trade war or a military strike against Iran), I certainly do not rule it out.

It is hard, if not impossible, ‘scientifically’ to quantify such a possibility — especially when dealing with an individual as seemingly mercurial as Mr Trump. And it is even more so given the mixed signals which continue to emanate from Washington. For example:

  • On the one hand, National Security Advisor HR McMaster told the BBC in an interview last month that the US has "to be prepared, if necessary, to compel the denuclearisation of North Korea", with or without their cooperation.
  • On the other, as the Financial Times pointed out in a recent article (subscriber access only), so far there has been no sign of the sort of logistical build-up which would almost certainly have to precede not only an all-out assault on North Korea but also, for fear of full-scale retaliation, limited surgical strikes. However, the article itself goes on to question how clearcut the current situation is by going on to suggest that the regular joint US/South Korea military exercises, such as Foal Eagle, do provide some basis (and cover) for such a build-up — as North Korea’s nervousness about the exercises readily testifies.

What does appear to be clear, nevertheless, is that Mr Trump himself remains utterly opposed to talks without preconditions.

Pulling all of this together, for now at least I stand by the view I have been promulgating since August (when I was asked by one of my clients to write a scenarios paper) that we are likely to continue on the established trajectory for some time to come still — albeit with the caveat that, if North/South talks continue, Pyongyang may quietly suspend testing for at least some weeks. I currently put a 75% probability on something along these lines persisting at least until the latter part of this year.

However, even if North Korea does slow down on missile and nuclear tests, this scenario still begs the question of what Mr Trump will do when he can no longer avoid the binary choice which The Economist highlighted “between diplomacy and military action”. Although I remain very cautious about South Korea’s recent claim that Pyongyang and Washington will enter into direct talks this year, I still think that the balance of probabilities is that Mr Trump will ultimately opt for containment and learn to live with a fully nuclear-capable North Korea. Nevertheless, adding to the mix the possibility of a miscalculation of some sort by one side or the other, I still find myself putting a 35% probability on war breaking out on the Korean peninsula at some point in the next 15 months or so.

Alastair Newton