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What America Thinks It Knows about Kim Jong Un

Posted September. 16, 2020 07:33,   

Updated September. 17, 2020 11:54


We often write of the fog of war, but the recent negotiating experience with Kim Jong Un highlights the fog of diplomacy.

If Americans have learned anything from brinkmanship and summitry with a longstanding adversary, it should be that familiarity can both clarify irreconcilable differences and conceal critical realities. Dialogue may deepen mutual understanding, sometimes mutual distrust, and sometimes both.

Revelations emerging from the Trump administration provide a trove of first-hand accounts of dealing with Chairman Kim.  We now have two previous national security advisors' accounts, excerpts from Kim's private letters, and candid conversations of the U.S. president speaking withinvestigative reporter Bob Woodward.

After this haul of information, you would think we might know answers to basic questions, such as Kim's real diplomatic objectives and his thinking about possible redlines.  What does Kim seek to achieve from negotiations with President Donald Trump? Does the North Korean leader truly fear ROK-U.S. alliance military capabilities? And what provocations, including thethreat or use of force or cyberattacks, is Kim capable of in the coming weeks, months, and years?

In Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, soldier-scholarH. R. McMaster explains how "fire and fury" sought to ratchet up maximum pressure to prepare for diplomacy.  President Barack Obama had warned Trump about the danger of North Korea acquiring an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). So, when Kim conducted his country's sixth and largest (putatively "hydrogen") nuclear test on September 3, 2017, Trump was determined to make "Pyongyang first feel the consequences of its actions" before offering a diplomatic offramp. 

From McMaster’s perspective, the primary purpose of bringing Kim to the bargaining table would be to try to compel and persuade North Korea to alter the pattern of its actions that had perpetuated decades of hostility. McMaster writes that the problem with the Kim family regime was that “the cycle of North Korean provocation, feigned conciliation, negotiation, extortion, concession, promulgation of a weak agreement, and the inevitable violation of that agreement actually encouraged the North’s aggression.”

John Bolton picks up the inside-the-White House narrative from there.  InThe Room Where It Happened, Bolton chronicles the events surrounding the Trump-Kim summits, in Singapore in June 2018 and Hanoi in late-February 2019.

After social media have rendered formal correspondence anachronistic, leave it to North Korea to resurrect the art of persuasive letter-writing. The Singapore summit might have never happened had it not been for a missive from Kimhand-delivered to the White House less than a fortnight before the scheduled rendezvous.  Bolton dubs this "the beginning of the Trump-Kim bromance."  Even though the letter was "pure puffery," Trump disparaged his predecessors as "stupid," and saw a historic opportunity to alter the decades-long animosity with North Korea single-handedly.  

The Singapore conclave broke the ice, but it did no more than begin a process with a broad statement of leaders’ intentions. When senior Trump administration officials met in late July to assess the aftermath of the Singapore summit, Bolton agreed with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who “was emphatic that North Korea had made no significant steps toward denuclearization and that there was ‘zero probability of success.”

The president should have insisted on concrete results at lower levels of dialogue before conveninga second summit. Instead,Trump was again animated by his pen-pal in a letter crafted “as if [it] had been written by Pavlovians who knew exactly how to touch the nerves enhancing Trump’s self-esteem.”  More alarmingly, Bolton also says Trump believed he could strike a deal and insisted on another leaders’ meeting after the November 2018 midterm election. 

Both McMaster and Bolton want the record to show that Kim Jong Un did not dupe them.  In one surreal moment in Singapore, Kim hints at the kind of mind games he was playing when he asks the hawkish national security advisor: “You may find this hard to answer, but do you think you can trust me?”

In Rage, Bob Woodward relates Trump in his own words. In contrast to his national security advisors, Trump compares Kim's attitude toward his nuclear arsenal to real estate, "you know, somebody that's in love with a house and they just can't sell it." Neither McMaster nor Bolton was as enamored of Kim's flattery, as was the president.  After Singapore, Kim encouraged Trump to hold “another historic meeting between myself and Your Excellency reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” Trump swooned over Kim's florid embellishment of a “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.”In Trump's words, "You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it's going to happen."

One thing Kim appeared to want was an understanding of U.S. military capabilities and, ideally,
to tempt Trump to follow-through with his unilateralist notion of a troop withdrawal. For Bolton, this was an abiding concern. And Kim was rewarded with a cessation of some alliance military exercises, and perhaps inferred a Trump promise to curtail them altogether.

Trump was not good at holding back from making bold promises or divulging secrets. Consider the president's assertion to Woodward that, "I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven't even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody — what we have is incredible."

The upshot of these revelations is that the Trump-Kim diplomatic era has solidified American skepticism about Kim's motives.  Yet there seem to be many in South Korea who still think Pyongyang is interested in a deal. There are even some willing to transfer wealth to a nuclear-armed North Korea on the assumption peace may eventually be the result.

On September 11, the anniversary of terror attacks on America, NKNews led with this story: "Kim Jong Un: 'Hypersensitive' U.S. military actions contributed to failed talks." The headline lent credence to Kim's suggestion that the June 2019 pledge to resume talks failed because Trump allowed an alliance command post exercise planned for August to proceed.In another letter, Kim disingenuouslyasked: “Against whom is the combined military exercises taking place…and who are they intended to defeat and attack?”  The unspoken answer: Kim Jong Un and his significantly improved arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons. 

We may have to coexist with North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the sense that we do not wish to start a war to disarm them.  But accepting North Korea as a permanent nuclear-weapon state also heightens risk, too. The Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military asserts that Beijing may be moving its strategic forces to a “launch on warning” posture. As the PLA pushes hard to integrate long-range lethal firepower with advanced information technology, it is significant to move toward a military doctrine that effectively seeks to act first and ask questions later.  No wonder Japan sees a growing need to adopt its version of "active defense" by overcoming the taboo against offensive strike capabilities. These moves, combined with Pyongyang's inventory of land-based, and soon sea-based, nuclear-tipped missiles, is fraught with implications for crisis stability in Northeast Asia.

For the moment, Kim has his hands full with a pandemic, economic hardship, and natural disasters. If it were not for these internal complications, surely Kim would be even more inclined to conduct an October surprise sometime around the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party parade scheduled for October 10 right up to the crucial November 3rd American presidential election.

Or perhaps because of these myriad internal problems, Kim may be more inclined than usual to revert to its old playbook. An ICBM mock-up making its debut at next month’s parade would be unsurprising. But neither should even more offensive actions. The ROK-U.S. alliance should be ready for a more significant provocation, from the threat of force to testing a mobile ground- or sea-based ballistic missile to a substantial escalation of cyber warfare.

While the past few years have demonstrated Kim's desire to retain nuclear weapons but avoid military conflict in the process, we should not allow our governments to become so conditioned that they assume Kim’s only options are peaceful ones.  If recent dealingswith Kim have taught us anything, it should be to mind the gap between the familiar and the certain.

Patrick M. Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute