It’s quite true that the North Korean regime is secretive to the extreme. However, in the 42 years since I started as a Pyongyang watcher, I’ve found that the thinking of the ruling Kims and their minions is far from impenetrable.
The basic lesson from those decades of close study is that this is a regime that has its own ways, different from others’ ways – and has no wish or intention to change much.
The regime’s unusual ways are tied directly to certain goals. Unchallenged domination of current US ally South Korea tops Pyongyang’s wishlist. That’s something the North expects to have a better shot at achieving after a first step: persuading Trump to withdraw US troops and sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.
Optimists have popped up with considerable frequency since the 1970s in the United States, South Korea and elsewhere to predict big changes in Pyongyang’s ways and, particularly, its goals. Sooner or later, they have always been proven wrong. There is not now and there never will be a kinder, gentler North Korea ruled by the Kim family.
With that in mind, it is as clear as day that Kim Jong Un considers 2020 his year to remove American constraints on his power. And that’s the meaning of the end-of-the-year, fish-or-cut-bait deadline he delivered months ago to Donald Trump.
Why did he allow all that time, instead of demanding quicker results? For one thing, it gave the North Koreans an opportunity to put in incremental work improving their weapons systems. That’s been easy for them to manage. Pressure to do otherwise, from enemies and allies alike, fell away largely on account of Kim’s charm offensive and his public bromance with Trump.
But the main reason Kim chose the end of 2019 for his deadline is, simply put, that he reads Trump. He knows that once the election campaign year has begun the US president and chief Artist of The Deal will be more amenable than ever to giving up the store, in the hope a bad deal can be passed off as good to enough voters for him to get re-elected.
Pyongyang will have only the one reelection year, with its maximum opportunity to entrap Trump – unless the highly self-regarding president wins reelection and then figures a way to realize his dream of abolishing the two-term limit on presidents.
One benefit of not having changed the system appreciably over the 70-odd years of the North Korean regime’s existence is that officials who’ve managed to avoid the firing squad have tended to stick around for long periods and develop great familiarity with their jobs.
Take Kim Yong Nam. He already was in charge of studying the US enemy way back in 1979 when I met him for lunch in Pyongyang and we talked for five hours. Old Kim (no close relation the ruling family) did finally retire this year, at 91. But there are plenty of other, somewhat younger people, with decades of US-watching experience, who remain to make sure the latest Kim ruler reads the enemy correctly.
Trump’s and Kim’s denuclearization “process,” such as it was, pretty much halted when a second summit early this year in Hanoi collapsed. This month North Korea issued a reminder of Kim’s deadline, saying with a Scrooge-like flourish that there’d be a “Christmas gift” if Washington should fail to make appropriate concessions in time.
I’ve never been a fan of veteran operative John Bolton, a devoutly partisan Republican and an überhawk on a range of foreign policy issues, who most recently served as Trump’s national security advisor. But I’m glad an American of such long experience has stepped up to offer what I would describe as thoroughly warranted warnings about Kim and his intentions.
Bolton, as AFP and others reported, on Monday took up again a theme that had helped get him fired by Trump in September: criticism of the president’s North Korea policy.
“The risk to US forces & our allies is imminent & more effective policy is required before NK has the technology to threaten the American homeland,” Bolton tweeted.
Bolton had shown impatience and skepticism over Kim’s charm offensive and had counseled Trump to be cautious in their summit meetings.
Bolton also gave an interview to Axios magazine, published Monday. There he argued that if the Trump administration were really determined to stop Korea from becoming a recognized nuclear power, with the capability of firing missiles at other countries, the administration “would be pursuing a different course.”
“The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true,” Bolton told Axios. Once the deadline passes, he said, if North Korea commits major provocations, Washington should say: “We’ve tried. The policy’s failed.”
The United States and its allies should then come up with a way to show that “when we say it’s unacceptable, we’re going to demonstrate we will not accept it,” he added.
Bolton was critical of Trump’s quoted remark that he’s not bothered by North Korea’s short-range missile tests.
“When the president says, ‘Well, I’m not worried about short-range missiles,’ he’s saying, ‘I’m not worried about the potential risk to American troops deployed in the region or our treaty allies, South Korea and Japan,'” Bolton complained.
“We’re now nearly three years into the administration with no visible progress toward getting North Korea to make the strategic decision to stop pursuing deliverable nuclear weapons,” Bolton said. “Time is on the side of the proliferator.”
New cold war?
Bolton was somewhat vague about what he would advise the US and its allies to do to show they’re serious. I’m not going to endorse unseen whatever his current prescription might be, in case it’s hot war he has in mind.
Still, policies that I think must be considered include some that are only somewhat less martial than actually dropping bombs.
Following the Cold War playbook by upping the deterrent level may, conceivably, end up being the last and best North Korea option for the United States – and for any allies that stand with the US rather than giving in to what may seem, particularly with Trump in the White House, the inevitability of Kimdom. (I’m looking especially at you, President Moon Jae-in.)
Sound policy may conceivably involve accepting (even encouraging) the rise of two new nuclear powers, South Korea and Japan. That would be bad, of course, in proliferation terms.
But in the grand scheme of things it could turn out better than giving in to Kim’s dreams of extending his family’s rule over the proud industrialized democracy that now exists south of the Demilitarized Zone.
Veteran Asia-focused journalist Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a history, and of Nuclear Blues, a North Korea-set novel.