While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeks to put the most positive spin possible on his latest trip to Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is demonstrating that any radical changes in North Korea’s nuclear posture are far from a done deal – regardless of the optimistic pronouncements coming from Pompeo’s boss, US President Donald Trump.
And while Pompeo considers requesting Congressional ratification of any upcoming North Korean deal to ensure it survives the Trump presidency, he also appears reluctant to challenge North Korea over its negative depiction of the latest round of apparently troubled talks.
But while global media breathlessly dissect the latest moves, the key player in this regional and international drama – Kim – can afford to play the long game.
While big question marks hang over his health – both his weight and his family genes are problematic – the young marshal’s negotiating partners are a much older crowd than he. According to North Korea, Kim was born on January 8, 1982; according to South Korea, he was born on that day in 1983; while according to the US Treasury, he was born in 1984. This makes makes him 36, 35 or 34.
His diplomatic offensive has engaged counterparts who are in their mid-60s and mid-70s. Moreover, those in democracies have elections and term limits to deal with. President Xi Jinping of China and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea are 65, while Trump is 73. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be the youngster in the group at 63, but is facing a particularly insecure political future.
While demographics are not the only factor shaping Kim’s efforts to structure a complex set of deals, they cannot be overlooked. Assuming he retains power into his sixties, the deals being struck now must stick for three decades. No other player in this game is likely to remain at the table for so long.
To suggest, simply, that “age does not matter” is to deny Kim’s survivalist mentality and dynastic imperative.
Still, few experts seem to label Kim’s age a critical factor, or what role it might have on the implementation of denuclearization strategies, let alone the potential for future conflict in the region.
“Democracies generate turnover that often gives despots an advantage in the long game; democratic leaders always have tight timelines that puts pressures on them that autocrats do not face,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. “Xi shares this advantage with Kim. Moon, Abe and Trump have to contend with elections to ensure legitimacy, while despots rely on power and ruthlessness.”
This offers Kim an extra card, Kingston suggests.
“For Kim the key is to string this out … make concessions and promises that avert worst case scenarios while retaining his trump cards,” he said. “He cannot outright welch on the deal, but can come close to doing so and thus buy and bide time. [Democratic] transitions generate opportunities and as new constellations of forces develop he can respond as needed. Successors tend to want to repudiate their predecessors’ policies, but not so much on the Korean Peninsula, because denuclearization is the desired goal.”
Still, Kim’s youth, while a positive on the international chessboard, may be a negative at home, in a culture where age is respected and senior military and regime elite have decades on him.
“Even though he is a hereditary leader, Kim had to prove his mettle to his generals and top party leaders, who are ancient. He seems to have consolidated his power through purges and assassinations to the extent that he felt confident in switching to ‘smile diplomacy,’” said Professor William Brooks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“Kim believes he has gained legitimacy and international stature, at the expense of the US, and is on the way for entry to the international community.”
Despite his youth, Kim appears to have the wisdom to set the stage well in advance before dealing his latest blow, this weekend, to Trump’s upbeat assessment of his own and his team’s negotiating prowess.
Not only has Kim, following his conciliatory New Year’s Day message, made himself palatable to Beijing, Seoul and Moscow, he has also neutralized the role of arguably the most hawkish player in the region – Tokyo – by his de facto dismissal of Abe’s attempts to insert the abductee issue into the broader framework that is now emerging.
“North Korea has dismissed the possibility of Japan playing a role in the denuclearization process and seems adamantly against a summit meeting with Abe, knowing that he will hammer Kim on the abduction issue that the North considers ‘resolved,’” said Brooks, who describes Abe as someone who “began his career young and dynamic; he is now a seasoned politician in his 60s and his rivals are in the same age bracket. So his successor would not be that different from him demographically.”
Now, by shouting out that Washington is not negotiating in good faith as Trump said it would in Singapore, Kim may be cutting a détente-focused South Korea adrift from Washington, pushing it in the direction of a much more independent stance. That outcome would sit well with China as Beijing seeks to undermine and ultimately vaporize the South Korea-US alliance.
Of course, Kim’s actual strategy is open to question; only he and his close advisors know it. Even so, he clearly departed Singapore with a stronger sense of self-confidence as well as a realization that President Trump does not now possess the means – militarily or diplomatically – to ultimately make or break his regime’s future.
“The fate of North Korea is clearly in Kim’s hands; he could continue to seek to game the system and get away with holding on to his nuclear arsenal while gaining additional concessions from the US and the ROK,” said Brooks. “Sooner or later that house of cards will collapse, and the situation returns to before, with the danger of conflict imminent.”
But Kim has a number of non-core cards up his sleeve – such as returning the remains of US troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, or dismantling missile launch sites.
“He could dish out in small batches certain concessions that would keep the US at bay, while reaping economic benefits from legal and illegal trade with China and Russia,” said Brooks. “I do not see any signs, however, of a willingness for Kim to take big steps to denuclearize unless the US agrees to withdraw from South Korea.”
What looks almost certain is that Kim will outlive Trump, in both personal and political terms. By doing that, he will almost certainly have outplayed the most unpredictable occupant of the White House he will ever have to face.