The Brood: The North Korean nuclear crisis just gave us whiplash again, as Pyongyang threatens to pull out of talks. Why the sudden change in language? And what does it signal about Kim Jong Un’s long-term strategy?
As luck would have it, mere hours after I posted about the upcoming North Korea talks, North Korea threatened to pull out of those very talks. According to the North Koreans themselves, two things precipitated the threat:
1. Regular US-South Korea Military Exercises (Foal Eagle)
The US and South Korea have been running joint-exercises to protect against North Korea for many decades, stretching all the way back to the armistice of the Korean War in 1953. The objectives of the exercises are fairly straightforward. First, they are meant to deter North Korean aggression by demonstrating an advanced capability to repel several methods of attack. Secondly, they’re meant to signal a strong political alliance between the United States and South Korea.
The official line from North Korea is that they believe that these defensive operations are actually preparations for an offensive invasion of the North. They may very well be sincere about this. In his excellent piece on the prospect of War with North Korea, Evan Osnos notes that North Korea remembers the devastation wrought on it by the US in the original Korean War. He even spoke with James Clapper about the air of paranoia:
Clapper’s visit convinced him that the absence of diplomatic contact is creating a dangerous gulf of misperception. “I was blown away by the siege mentality—the paranoia—that prevails among the leadership of North Korea. When we sabre-rattle, when we fly B-1s accompanied by jet escorts from the Republic of Korea and Japan, it makes us feel good, it reassures the allies, but what we don’t factor in is the impact on the North Koreans.”
2. John Bolton’s Moustachioed Statements
John Bolton, world-famous for his trigger-happy policy positions, made a diplomatic blunder by comparing the current US approach to de-nuclearisation to the “Libyan Model“. An awkward comparison, to say the least, because eight years after Libya agreed to give up their nuclear program, US-backed rebels captured and killed the country’s dictatorial leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Besides the obvious (though apparently overlooked) implication that Kim would end up like Gaddafi, the North Koreans were more upset about the foundational idea of the comparison: giving up their current stockpile of nuclear weapons. That’s the true origin of the tension over talks. Even when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played good cop to John Bolton’s bad cop and offered US investment in North Korea after disarmament, Kim was none too happy.
Most commentators in the US have taken the position that these diplomatic moves by the North Koreans follow a familiar pattern: provoke a crisis, negotiate, extract a win. This pattern has held up for a few decades now, and many analysts explain the phenomenon by saying that this is all a survival tactic. There’s no ideology or long-term-ism involved in these moves, it’s only Kim literally fighting for his life.
That might be selling Kim short, though. The North has long held that their goal is the reunification of Korea under Communist rule. This result feels so unlikely to most observers that its hard to take it seriously as an end goal, but perhaps we should take it seriously as the North Korean end game.
After all, the North Koreans have a second reason to complain about the military exercises and maintain a nuclear arsenal: it’s a potential way to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. While the US and South Korea are long-time allies, that relationship has always had tensions, if not outright venom. Domestic opponents of the US-South Korea alliance often point out that the US treats South Korea like a vassal state, constantly disregarding Koreans’ opinions on key policy issues and tarnishing their sovereignty.
If, for example, Kim Jong Un can coax the United States into doing something in direct opposition to the will of its partner South Korea, then he may be able to get South Koreans to question whether they truly need the US anymore. Without domestic support for the US-South Korea alliance, the dominance of the Kim family over all Korea would be just that much closer, even if more and more young South Koreans don’t support reunification.
That’s why complaints about the military exercises were potentially useful on multiple levels. Thankfully, American diplomats heeded their South Korean partners and refrained from flying B-52’s during a training exercise. With a leader like Donald Trump, though, we may not always be so lucky. After all, this is a man who threatened to “totally destroy North Korea“, in complete disregard for South Korean lives.
Keeping in mind North Korea’s determination to drive the US and South Korea apart would do the American negotiators well. Despite a crippled State Department and a bombastic President, it is still possible to keep the alliance together. However, given that the goal of North Korea is unification on their terms and not just regime survival per se, it seems impossible to imagine North Korea giving up their nuclear stockpile, even if they do halt production. If neither side budges on the stockpile issue, it puts us back into a very familiar, and dangerous, status quo.