Even by North Korean standards, Kim Jong Un has been unpredictable this year.
He promised to unveil a “new strategic weapon” to counter the U.S. and then scaled back a record run of ballistic missile tests. He sent a condolence letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the coronavirus in March and then last week blew up the $15 million liaison office that Seoul built to exchange such messages.
On Wednesday, Kim continued to surprise, announcing the suspension of newly announced “military action plans” against South Korea. Hours later, Seoul said it observed North Koreans removing loudspeakers that were recently installed to resume propaganda broadcasts across the border, the Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified government officials.
While North Korean leaders have long exploited their reputation for volatility to exert pressure on foreign rivals, the recent policy shifts may point to a deeper problem for Kim: He’s stuck. More than two years after an unprecedented flurry of summits with Moon, U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping, Kim still hasn’t achieved the sanctions relief and security guarantees he wanted.
To break the stalemate, Kim needs to create enough pressure to force Trump back to the bargaining table, so he can get support for his ailing economy. But North Korea must be careful to avoid any actions that prompt a military confrontation with the more powerful U.S. or, more likely, cause Washington and Beijing to pile on even more sanctions.
“This is a tricky game, and Pyongyang has few levers right now to really influence Washington,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat who specialized in Korean Peninsula issues. “I suspect it will continue to heighten tensions as best it can, but be reluctant to conduct the sort of provocations that might completely close the door on engaging Trump.”
Kim has cycled through a succession of approaches since his last formal summit with Trump in February 2019 broke down without a deal. First, he ramped up weapons tests and warnings toward the U.S. while largely ignoring Moon’s overtures for dialog. In recent days, he has deputized his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to lead a campaign of provocations and threats against South Korea, including the June 16 destruction of their de facto embassy on the northern side of the border.
Suddenly, just as the peninsula was preparing to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean War on Thursday, state media reported that Kim had ordered military brass to hold off on their plans for South Korea because of the “prevailing situation.” Later, senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol warned that the military “suspension” could be reconsidered, if South Korean officials weren’t careful.
Although such reversals have kept the world guessing, they also show that Kim is only willing to take things so far.
More serious actions, such as attacking a South Korean military target or launching an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S., could have dangerous consequences, if Trump views the resulting crisis as a threat to his re-election chances. Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s claim in a newly released memoir that Trump called his decision to meet Kim in Singapore in 2018 an “exercise in publicity” may only affirm that calculus.
“If Kim proceeds with a provocative ICBM test launch, President Trump will stress he has already gone the extra mile, beyond any of his predecessors, to help build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” said John Sitilides, a geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors in Washington. He added it would mean an end to sanctions relief and “any diplomatic failure therefore rests fully on the Kim regime.”
There may be some advantage to Kim in waiting. His regime can keep churning out fissile material and bombs, building an arsenal that could reach as high as 100 nuclear warheads by the end of the year, according to the Arms Control Association.
That would make it more of a threat for whoever wins the U.S. election and increase Kim’s leverage in talks. North Korea has also proved adept at evading sanctions through the illicit transfer of goods on the high seas, often in waters between its coast and China’s.
Still, Kim is unlikely to find two more favorable leaders in Washington and Seoul than Trump and Moon. Moon, who has spent much of his career seeking peace with North Korea, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term after his current one expires in 2022.
Trump, meanwhile, has swung from threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea during his first year in office to boasting of falling “in love” with Kim and repeatedly echoing the regime’s criticism of American military activities on the peninsula. The presumptive Democratic candidate for this November’s U.S. presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has signaled a more confrontational policy, vowing to emphasize human rights, to support U.S. alliances and to not “coddle dictators.”
Such criticism makes it harder for Trump to hold another summit with Kim and increases his incentives for punishing North Korea if it breaks a more than two-year-old freeze on ICBM and nuclear bombs tests. The U.S. president has so far shrugged off Kim’s tests of shorter-range missiles, even though such weapons violate United Nations resolutions and appear designed to harm U.S. troops and American allies in the region.
Kim may still risk a more serious provocation as the election pressure increases on Trump. Nonproliferation experts have for months predicted that North Korea may soon demonstrate the capability to launch a new nuclear-capable missile from a submarine, degrading the U.S.’s ability to prevent a counterattack in a conflict.
South Korean defense officials have in recent days said North Korea appears to be preparing for a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea in October. U.S. authorities have also observed the North Korean military testing ICBM launchers, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported earlier this month, suggesting the regime was preparing for its first such launch since November 2017.
Such a test poses enormous risk because it may undercut support for sanctions relief by China and Russia, which both slashed trade with North Korea after its previous testing barrage. In March and April, North Korea’s exports to China fell more than 90 percent from a year ago, China’s Customs General Administration reported.
If Kim does lash out, it may be at South Korea, which has repeatedly voiced sympathy for North Korea’s demands for sanctions relief. Moon has signaled a desire to preserve ties with Kim, even after North Korea destroyed the most concrete symbol of his rapprochement strategy last week.
Soo Kim, a Rand Corp. policy analyst, said North Korea’s latest suspension of military plans against South Korea likely didn’t indicate a major strategy shift.
“They’ve put Seoul through the wringer countless times, hung them up to dry, repeated this cycle,” she said. “And abruptly, they decide they want to cut you a break — shouldn’t that raise more suspicions about North Korean intent?”
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