The devil may be in the detail. South Korean president Moon Jae-in (r) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Inter-Korean Summit Pool/Anadolu Agency
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, has sought to strengthen ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP / Inter-Korean Summit Pool / Anadolu Agency

Word is going around some Asian diplomatic posts that Kim Jong-un is in trouble at home and that is why he appears to be putting the brakes on the upcoming proposed summit meeting with President Trump in Singapore.

These diplomats think the trouble is coming from regime hardliners who allegedly see North Korea’s future security tied to its nuclear weapons program.

That is not an illogical thought. North Korea is a poor country, with a gross domestic product of about $17.4 billion and only 3% of the country’s roads are paved. In 2014 the gross domestic income per capita was about $1,800, but this does not mean that the country’s meager resources pan out as a viable if extremely low income for everyone.

Grinding poverty and hunger are well known in North Korea, sometimes to the point of mass starvation. With only 17% of arable land and mostly primitive agricultural methods, food yields are poor and irregular either because of bad weather or bad management or, in the perfect storm, both.

On top of its poverty, according to the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, North Korea and Somalia are tied for the title of the world’s most corrupt nation. The result is that a small elite controls the country using both physical and psychological threats and intensive propaganda to achieve strict control over the public.

This helps explain Korea’s push for nuclear weapons and missiles, since much of the rest of its military hardware is obsolete and based on designs from the early 1950s. North Korea’s air force is no match for South Korea or Japan, let alone the United States. The best aircraft in the North Korean inventory is the MIG-29, which dates back to the early 1980s.

Most of the rest of the fighter aircraft – Su-25 and MIG 17, 19, 21 and 23 and some Chinese versions – go back in design to the 1970s or earlier. The North Korean air fleet wouldn’t last 10 minutes against modern Western aircraft, especially the F-15 and F-16, which have advanced radars, look-down-shoot-down capability and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles. They could not even hope to penetrate South Korean airspace.

Military assets

North Korea’s best military assets are the thousands of artillery pieces and tactical rocket systems – the most impressive is the KN-09 multiple launch rocket system with a range of about 180 kilometers, or 120 miles, and older systems with about half the range. These are probably its best assault weapon as they can be moved around easily on Chinese-supplied vehicles and would be harder to take out than fixed-site artillery along the Demilitarized Zone.

One of the most devastating counter-measures would be the American A-10 with its massive 30mm gun firing depleted uranium armor penetrating shells, as it could carve up the KN-09 and its counterpart the M1985/M1991.

But South Korea, under its current leadership, will do almost anything to avoid conflict with the North and, in fact, is more than willing to make deals highly favorable to Kim Jong-un to keep the reconciliation process alive and moving. While not officially stated, it is more than likely that South Korea is willing to pay its way for reconciliation.

That is why South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is deeply worried, so much so he has traveled to Washington to see Trump, concerned that not only is the summit in danger, but clearly he understands that the US is deeply unhappy with South Korea’s evolving arrangements with North Korea.

The rub is nuclear weapons, which are North Korea’s security blanket that some Northern elites don’t want to compromise on. And South Korea does not see itself as a threatened party, at least in the mind of South Korea’s ruling party led by former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in. It is the United States and Japan that feel the threat of North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.

A united, nuclear-armed country

Many years ago the late American Defense Department’s Under Secretary and former head of the State Department’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Fred Iklé testified to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the real result of reunification on the Korean peninsula would be a united, nuclear-armed country.

This was not speculative: any such deal on keeping nuclear weapons might get the conservatives in the South to agree to a deal in the future, something that Moon would need to accept politically if he is to carry out anything resembling real reunification.

Does Washington sense this is the direction in which Moon and Kim are heading, pushing Washington away from any concrete or workable nuclear deal, seeking a face-saving compromise and an artificial summit for Trump that will yield next to nothing practical?

Japan is certainly alarmed and much of what remains of a loyal Washington intelligence establishment thinks likewise. There are even reports that Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea’s northwest is a fake operation: no verification is allowed although there are foreign observers there.

The wild card is what the North may do about any summit if there is no deep face-saving compromise ahead of time. Already there may be a kind of low-grade coup d’etat inside North Korea’s insular elites unless Kim Jong-un can overcome the speculated internal opposition. The easiest short-term “out” for him is to delay or cancel the summit with Trump and then see if he can weed out the opposition, something he has proven able to do ruthlessly in liquidating his powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek and murdering his half brother Kim Jong-nam.

Recently Kim has been relying on his sister Kim Yo-jong, who unexpectedly has risen to prominence, especially in the North-South “summit” at  Panmunjom on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area. Just how close the sister is, and what her role might be if the low-grade coup turns into something more demonstrable, remains to be seen.

It is noteworthy that President Trump, with the deal in danger chose to contradict his National Security Advisor John Bolton and to publicly argue that in any nuclear deal with the United States, Kim Jong-un would stay in power. Was this a slip revealing intelligence on Kim’s shaky situation? Trump said that any deal “would be with Kim Jong-un, something where he’d be there, he’d be in his country, he’d be running his country, his country would be very rich, his country would be very industrious.”

It is anyone’s guess if Kim can beat down the opposition and whether Moon can delivery a flimsy face-saving summit that President Trump might possibly accept. Trump can walk away, either before an actual summit or if need be at the summit itself. There are risks of course, but the bigger danger is that Kim keeps his nuclear program and the threat from North Korea continues to grow.

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