By Jonathan Davis
North Korea’s self-imposed end-of-the-year deadline to restart denuclearization talks with the United States, to have been preceded with a pledge from the Trump administration to ease economic sanctions, has come and gone with the New Year.
And Kim Jong-un wasted no time in ramping up the tension — and rhetoric.
In a New Year’s Day speech to his country, Kim threatened “shocking actual action” against the U.S. and, presumably, our South Korean allies, while promising that he would soon unveil new strategic weapons.
At the same time, however, Kim left the door open for new denuclearization talks and, of course, did not specify what form “shocking” action might take. But nonetheless, the Pentagon has been carefully monitoring developments in North Korea, and while much of the American media reporting on that aspect of U.S. preparedness makes it seem as though DoD has ramped up surveillance, it’s appropriate to point out that DoD has continued monitoring North Korea all along.
“The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by [North Korea] in the near future,” Kim said, according to South Korean media.
The Washington Times added:
Adding to tensions, Pyongyang in recent days has made clear it believes it is no longer bound to denuclearization promises it made with the Trump administration. North Korea last tested nuclear weapons in 2017 but then stopped all such tests as Mr. Kim and President Trump began a period of unprecedented diplomacy between the two countries, including three in-person meetings between the two men.
That diplomacy, however, has failed to produce a comprehensive denuclearization deal, and Mr. Kim says the U.S. has violated the spirit of negotiations by continuing some joint military drills with South Korea and by shipping arms to Seoul.
“There is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer,” Kim said.
Let’s analyze this.
First, as the Times points out, Kim did not directly attack President Trump. That’s important because that alone signals that he is willing to restart talks.
And why not? Anything Kim could get Trump to agree to would be a ‘win’ for him, though not necessarily one for peace and stability on the peninsula.
There has been much speculation that no matter how often Kim and Trump meet, the former will never surrender his country’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea has spent decades and billions of dollars building it to the point it is currently at.
Kim also views the possession of nuclear weapons as a status symbol that elevates North Korea to a rare global position of power while also guaranteeing his own power. The Kim dynasty and its survival is paramount to him.
Any denuclearization deal would eliminate the one trump card — no pun — Kim possesses to prevent an invasion of his country, which he fears most.
Now, any invasion by the U.S. without provocation will not be taken well by China or Russia, both of which share a common border with North Korea. Neither wants to deal with an influx of North Korean refugees, though China would most likely be the recipient of most of them.
But if Kim attacks a U.S. base or strikes any U.S. or allied target causing major casualties, all bets are off.
Trump would be compelled to respond with overwhelming force and against targets that the Pentagon has already identified. China and Russia would have nothing to say about it, but rest assured the administration would not make any moves before notifying Moscow and Beijing (though only shortly before any such attack so as to eliminate any possibility of Pyongyang being tipped off to it ahead of time and given time to move strategic assets).
A major missile and aerial bombardment of the North’s known military and nuclear infrastructure might trigger an actual war — and it might not.
Seeing the bulk of his offensive military power destroyed in one fell swoop just might make Kim think twice about continuing a conflict he knows he cannot win.
That’s suicide. And is Kim suicidal? There is nothing to indicate he would sacrifice himself and his regime to fight a pointless war he would lose.
So, where does that leave us? More bellicose rhetoric, perhaps more nuclear and missile testing, most posturing…and, maybe, a lost opportunity, diplomatically, for the Trump administration.
But again, that assumes Kim was ever serious about giving up his nuclear weapons. I don’t believe that he was.