Let’s catch up with best buds Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. On Thursday, US time, Trump boasted on the New Hampshire Today radio program that when he’d tweeted in June he’d had an instant response from Kim.
“I put out a tweet: ‘Hey, I am going to South Korea. If you want to meet for a couple of minutes, let’s meet.’ And I put it out and he was calling within 10 minutes.”
And Kim? On Friday, North Korea time, he launched two more unidentified projectiles into the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea.
It was the sixth such round of launches Kim has employed to rail against South Korean-US military drills. The North Koreans have signaled that he’s aiming his “solemn warnings” not so much at Trump, but at South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose country’s territory is vulnerable to the shorter-range missiles Kim’s been testing.
Shortly before the launches, the North’s National Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country issued a statement rejecting Moon’s comments the previous day about his desire for reunification. Moon had put forth a goal of “achieving peace and unification by 2045.” He won’t be in office then as his single five-year term ends in 2022.
The Northern committee’s statement blamed the South for lack of promised progress, and added: “We have nothing to talk any more with the south Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again.”
Contrast that dismissive impatience with Kim’s stated policy of patience toward Trump. Kim said months ago that he would seek a “new way” if the United States failed by year’s end to offer relief on sanctions. We’re getting close, with only four months and change to go before the end of 2019.
Is that how much slack Kim thinks he has in a deteriorating economy?
Is Kim anticipating that Trump will give up the farm for something he can use to get re-elected, so that it’s in Kim’s interest to wait until closer to US election day because Trump will give away more and there will be less time for North Korea watchers to clarify the deal?
Does Kim, noting that Trump’s current term goes only a little past 2020, fear that, like Bill Clinton, Trump will find his responsibilities piling up toward the end of the term so that he needs to concentrate on the Middle East (Iran) or someplace else?
Does Kim have more long-range weapons surprises in store that he’ll need until year’s end to roll out and exert maximum leverage?
North Korea watchers responded variously.
“I think Kim’s year-end deadline does tie directly to the 2020 election cycle,” said Van Jackson, who signed on last month as an advisor to Senator Kamala Harris, one of the contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson suggested that Kim might be encouraging Trump and the Democrats to compete in a contest to see which side can end the 69-year-old Korean War.
“Kim has proven himself adept at US politics in the past, and there’s a decent chance that Kim can maneuver Trump into making dramatic concessions or gestures of some kind in the context of Trump trying to get to the left of the democratic candidates on North Korea,” said Jackson, the author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim and the Threat of Nuclear War.
However, “the timing of Kim’s ‘new way’ could backfire. Most of the talking points I’ve seen from democratic campaigns suggest they see North Korea policy as a Trump vulnerability. But if we learned anything from the recent nuclear crisis, it’s that Kim now believes he’s a good gambler. What he knows is that 2020 will bring heightened attention. The uncertainty is whether that attention will combine with more missile tests and tough talk to push Trump left or push the democrats right,” Jackson continued.
“I read the year-end deadline as dictating terms from a position of strength, and trying to show patience long enough to determine if Trump is full of shit or if what he whispers to Kim in private actually changes US policy. So far it’s the former.”
Asked why Kim seems in such a hurry to make a negative impression on Moon and South Korea, Jackson replied: “Looks to me like Kim is treating South Korea like a red-headed stepchild. The US is the show and South Korea is a puppet, in keeping with North Korea being the ‘real’ Korea.”
Hank Morris, a Seoul-based financial analyst with expertise in North Korean politics, said: “It seems unlikely that Kim will start testing long-range missiles again, since he probably thinks that he has succeeded in reminding the Trump administration and other concerned parties that he is not pleased with the status quo.
“If he begins firing long-range missiles again, then Trump might ratchet sanctions up. Since Kim has hinted that he would like negotiations to continue, it seems unlikely that he would risk the restart of negotiations before his self-declared deadline has expired. But if there is no progress towards negotiations fairly soon, then maybe Kim will begin firing long-range missiles again just to prove that he can, and that his ability to threaten a number of countries is genuine.”
Mike Bassett, a former US Department of Defense employee, likewise focused on weaponry. Kim Jong Un “continues developing his defense programs whilst Trump continues ignoring it, hoping he can achieve big negotiations wins. Alas, Kim is a better strategist than anyone in America’s line-up.”
The “only advantage” the US has, Bassett said, is the National Security Agency, which continues to gather signal intelligence systematically. Meanwhile, he said, “the Norks rely solely on hacks for intel.”