Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

How the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general rekindled Kim Jong Un's worst fears

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

With the order to kill a top Iranian general last week, U.S. President Donald Trump may have rekindled Kim Jong Un’s worst fears while simultaneously cementing the North Korean leader’s belief that relinquishing his nuclear arsenal would be tantamount to suicide.

The U.S. on Friday unleashed a volley of missiles, sending Gen. Qassem Soleimani to his grave in one of the first known killings of a major military leader in a foreign country since World War II, when the American military shot down the plane carrying Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943.

Although North Korea’s initial reaction to the killing has been cautious, it was likely to have resonated in Pyongyang. The country’s state media was silent for three days before finally issuing a brief dispatch Monday on the attack that didn’t even mention Soleimani’s name.

But with Trump touting the killing as “a flawless precision strike” and vowing to “protect our diplomats, service members, all Americans, and our allies” and delivering a pledge to hit Iran “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if it takes retaliatory action, the attack was a message likely to resonate in Pyongyang, experts told The Japan Times.

“The North Koreans will be watching all of this unfolding very carefully,” said Andrew O’Neill, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.

O’Neill noted the Kim regime’s history of repeatedly pointing to the downfall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi at the hands of the U.S. or U.S.-backed forces as justification for retaining its nuclear arsenal.

“Pyongyang went on the record after Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011 as having said that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter the U.S. from instituting regime change,” he said. “But I think they would generalize this to targeting state assets openly.”

Soleimani was the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, a position some military observers said was equivalent to the U.S. Central Command chief.

For Pyongyang, O’Neill said, this shift was stark.

“Cyberinterference is one thing, but the U.S. assassinating a senior North Korean military or political leader would be beyond the pale,” he said.

Indeed, Trump’s reported preference for the most extreme option on a menu of choices presented to him could rekindle the belief in the notoriously paranoid North that the U.S. is seeking regime change through decapitation strikes.

Trump and Kim exchanged barbs and threats of conflict as the North conducted a spate of weapons tests in 2017. But then in 2018, Kim initiated diplomatic talks with Washington and suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests. The opening came after months of concerns that Trump could consider preventive military action against the North.

Soleimani was killed in a barrage of missiles fired from a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone, ripped to pieces by the strike and identified only by a large ring with a red stone he wore on his hand, according to media reports.

For the Kim regime, this haunting image “might be seen as a sign that the U.S. is now willing and capable of drone-hunting those they see as their enemies,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote Sunday in an editorial for the NK News website.

On Monday, a South Korean newspaper reported that the same type of strike drone used in Soleimani’s killing had been temporarily deployed to South Korea.

The Munhwa Ilbo daily, citing an unidentified U.S. intelligence source, reported that Washington had “tentatively deployed” approximately four MQ-9 Reaper drones to Kunsan Air Base in the western city of Gunsan since late last year.

Asked for confirmation, U.S. Forces Korea declined comment, the South’s Yonhap news agency said.

The U.S. military has had 12 MQ-1C Gray Eagle combat drones on the Korean Peninsula since February 2018. The military has said the drones are used for surveillance purposes, but the MQ-1C is capable of carrying up to four missiles.

The use of drone strikes surged under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, and Trump has at times also employed the weapons. But while targeted killings under Obama rose, those were directed against terrorist operatives, with what observers have said was a careful and deliberate calibration in targeting.

“What’s different under Trump is that the president appears to put greater emphasis on shock tactics,” O’Neill said.

“Whereas the Obama playbook with drone strikes avoided targeting state-affiliated individuals, with Trump all bets are off after the Soleimani killing,” said O’Neill. “For this reason alone, my assessment is that Kim Jong Un — and certainly the senior people around him — have reason to be concerned about what materializes from the White House as they push ahead with North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs.”

A rally is held at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
A rally is held at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

Friday’s strike on Soleimani also came at a time of intense speculation about the future of the North’s denuclearization talks with the U.S. Just days earlier, Kim used a key address to his country’s ruling party to label his standoff with Washington as now one “between self-reliance and sanctions.”

That speech, in which Kim also said his country would continue to build up his arsenal, left many observers wondering if the talks were now effectively dead as he doubled down on trying to outlast crippling U.S. and international sanctions over his nuclear program.

But the Soleimani strike could be the final nail in the coffin for its diplomacy with the Trump administration, as it further reinforces the North’s belief that nuclear weapons are required to effectively deter attack.

“Although fundamentally different from the Gadhafi and Saddam situations, Soleimani, from Pyongyang’s perspective, is probably just the latest example of American acts of unilateral aggression in a long and running list,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. “When viewed in this light, how can North Korea not have nuclear weapons to ensure regime survival? It must.”

In the near-term, though, the killing could also work to Trump’s advantage as he seeks a second term while grappling with looming impeachment proceedings.

“Kim has to at least consider the possibility that Trump, in a re-election year and facing impeachment, feels the need to demonstrate strong leadership, and thus may be inclined to take riskier action on the peninsula than previously thought,” Grossman said.

He said that the North, which ramped up its provocations as 2019 wound down — including the testing of an apparent rocket engine and an ominous threat to deliver a “Christmas present” to the United States — may now have to rethink this strategy.

“I believe Kim will now take a wait-and-see approach instead of rushing forward with an ICBM test,” Grossman said.

“This is not to say Kim won’t proceed at some point in the future — he almost certainly will. But I think Kim will also be a bit more hesitant now, especially if there is a U.S.-Iran war.”