The games Kim plays (updated 22 February)

For all North Korea's recent PR success, nothing has changed fundamentally.

Game to Ms Kim

When Kim Jong-un first reached out to South Korea over the Winter Olympics, I opined in an article for The Global Lead that this was yet another example of how he has consistently managed to call the shots for at least a year. Since then, from Pyongyang’s perspective things have just got better and better, as the recently released official photo of a very relaxed looking Kim Jong-un (above) strongly implies and as the analysis of it by Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea, makes absolutely clear.

Much of the credit for this PR success probably belongs not to Kim Jong-un himself but to his sister, Kim Yo-jong, (to her brother's left in the photo) who is her brother’s chief image-maker and whose presence in North Korea’s Olympic delegation appears to have reduced South Korea to a collective swoon.

Furthermore, Pyongyang has probably gained from what it has not done. Yesterday’s announcement by the US that the North Koreans had pulled out of a meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence at the last minute seems to me to be another example of sound judgement. Once it became absolutely clear that Mr Pence had no more to offer than a demand that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and further condemnation of its human rights record, holding the meeting became not only pointless from Pyongyang’s perspective but counterproductive. After all, that Kim Yo-jong and Mr Pence did not meet is hardly attention grabbing; on the other hand, if they had met it would have been front page news globally, which would have given the US every opportunity to remind the world publicly and in detail of North Korea’s many crimes (which was, according to Mr Pence, the principal reason why he went to Pyeongchang in the first place).

Set for more success?

With the Olympic success in the bag, Kim Jong-un is now well set to capitalise further, not only in terms of extending the dialogue with Seoul but also in looking to drive a deeper wedge between South Korea and the US (Washington’s denials that differences exist notwithstanding).

One sure way of achieving this second objective would be to persuade Seoul to postpone sine die the already delayed (for the Olympics) annual joint South Korea/US military exercises Foal Eagle/Key Resolve. This would not only be a coup in its own right (especially bearing in mind that Beijing has repeatedly called for the suspension of military exercises as as a confidence-building measure and precursor to negotiations); it would also ease Pyongyang’s paranoia over the possibility that the US could use the exercises as cover to prepare for an attack (a fear which is rooted in North Korea’s use of the very same ruse in 1950). I therefore expect the North Koreans to press the South very hard for this, possibly even making it a precondition for further dialogue.

In return, Kim Jong-un may offer some token-ish concessions of his own, eg allowing South Koreans to visit surviving relatives in the North, possibly even a formal freeze on nuclear and ballistic missile testing for a period. Matched by the further postponement of South Korea/US military exercises, this would be consistent with the ‘freeze for freeze’ proposal promoted by both Beijing and Moscow but (so far) consistently rejected by the US.

Such a freeze at this stage would be a relatively low price for Pyongyang to pay. Arms control experts have been arguing since September that the next logical step in its testing programme would be an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific. Assuming the test was successful, it would demonstrate more or less conclusively that North Korea had the capacity to strike the US mainland (that is, if it could bamboozle the US’s missile defences). But such a move would certainly put us at the fork in the road where President Donald Trump would have to decide whether to launch a military strike of some sort or whether, contrary to his pledge to voters, he would decide to live with a fully nuclear-capable North Korea.

Furthermore, if North Korea were to conduct another major test now (be it a ballistic missile or a nuclear device) it would effectively undermine all the gains it has made over the past two months or so, in terms of both the propaganda war and weakening the US’s ability to bring more international (as opposed to unilateral, which it certainly will do) pressure to bear. And it would surely put a stop to a possible summit in Pyongyang with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose visit would itself be a major booster to the North.


So, how does Pyongyang's decision, announced on 22 February) to send the hardline General Kim Yong-choi to the closing ceremony of the Olympics fit with the seemingly deft hand the North Koreans have shown to date? He is, after all, the man who is widely believed to have been behind the sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in 2010, as well as the shelling later that year of Yeonpyeyong island. And he is the subject of South Korean sanctions. So, by no means an obvious choice on the face of it.

There are three reasonable explanations (which are not mutually incompatible). The first is that this is a test of how flexible the South Koreans are prepared to be. If this is indeed the case, my bet is that Kim Yong-choi will be greeted with the normal diplomatic courtesies, if somewhat coolly. Second, after some weeks of 'velvet glove', Pyongyang may want to remind Seoul that it is both dangerous and ruthless when it chooses to be. Third, and more constructively, Kim Yong-choi clearly has the qualifications and credibility to engage seriously on 'talks about talks', ie agreeing terms for continuing the dialogue which the Olympics has kick-started.

In the circumstances, it is more than somewhat ironic that Mr Trump has elected to send to the ceremony his daughter, Ivanka, so presumably believing that she has what it takes to dilute, if not undermine, Kim Yo-jong's charm offensive. I have no doubt that she will indeed be well-received by the Moon administration; but, with the best will in the world, she could hardly be described as a heavy-hitter.

Break point to come still

Looking farther ahead, while recent events were unexpected and are certainly very newsworthy, far from causing me to revise the probabilities I offered in my 2 January article, I am minded that they and likely consequent developments are broadly consistent with them. In other words I continue to put a 75% probability on us remaining on the current trajectory at least until the latter part of this year, albeit with a highish likelihood of further North/South dialogue and a possibility of a resumption of talks directly involving the US, to which Mr Pence at least appears open.

However, this still leaves very open the question of what form the ‘end game’ would take once we get to that ‘fork in the road’ to which I referred earlier and Mr Trump has to decide between containment/diplomacy and military action (other than in the very unlikely event that Kim Jong-un does agree to surrender his nuclear weapons). As I wrote at the start of the 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