The North Korean Roller Coaster – What Will Kim Jong-Un Bring in 2020?

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What would you do if you were Kim Jong-Un? To begin with, you would be worrying that your always aggressive-minded military leaders were getting nervous over Beijing seeming to weaken in their dealings with the United States. Of course, some would say the Chinese really haven’t given up much militarily in exchange for some strictly economic deals. Unfortunately for Kim, that sort of logic doesn’t go very far with DPRK defense types who still believe the best defense is the threat of a growing offensive capability. This mentality is underpinned by these same North Korean (NK) generals having a long record of offensive actions – both overt and covert.

Kim cannot be overly sympathetic to Donald Trump’s current involvement in reelection politics. It has been well explained to the North Korean leader that the U.S. president is constrained during the forthcoming year in what he can offer in exchange for limited DPRK reductions/promises in advanced weapon development – and that is clearly what Washington wants. At the same time, Kim does not want to lose the “friendly” pose he created with Trump. The announcement of a “Christmas surprise” may have satisfied the more aggressive elements in Pyongyang, but it certainly pressed the edges of the desired “friendly” pose. The fact is that the American president needs to have at least a quiescent Pyongyang if not a clear movement toward peace-making gestures toward Seoul.

That is the difficult – some would say dangerous – situation in which Kim Jong-Un and his advisers find themselves. Oddly enough, Trump is in approximately the same position of having nothing but bad or inadequate choices. The current Washington Administration cannot be seen as offering too much for too little, while Kim and his group must satisfy their “hawks” that forward movement with the American problem is less important militarily and diplomatically than Beijing and Xi Jinping would want at this time. Yet one does not stay in power in Pyongyang by appearing to be a patsy for Washington – or perhaps even Beijing!

The Americans seemed to have taken in their stride the recent firing of two short range (200 -250 mile) missiles, but that does not negate the potential impact of the test firing of a long range, possibly solid fuel, nuclear-capable more advanced missile. This would be the New Year late “Christmas present.” The problem facing Kim is one that forces him to avoid embarrassment by doing nothing of conspicuous potential, or take the chance that the Americans will choose to characterize this test firing as a serious challenge for which they must respond definitively.

Kim and most of his military advisors think in this presidential year Donald Trump would have no other alternative than to show instant toughness. In any case, Kim has no choice but to test the American position by initiating a second or even third, possibly veiled challenge. Or worse, the challenge might not be veiled at all.

From Kim’s standpoint Donald Trump cannot afford to have another crisis on the North Korean front during an election year; that is if he and his advisors believe the American Democrat Party would be able to blame it on the Republican Trump. It becomes obvious Kim, and Pyongyang in general, must carefully watch the trends in American politics to decide which party would give them greater leverage. Would encouraging the American president to act precipitously be an advantage to the North and could that be used to take advantage of a Democrat reaction?

This sort of analysis depends on just how sophisticated Kim and his advisors are able and willing to play with the American political scene. Going tough at this stage may satisfy Kim Jong-Un’s right wing, but further softening of relations with Washington carries the possible economic advantages for a lessening of sanctions. On the other hand, appearing to be weak by acquiescing to Washington interests of most any kind certainly carries the potential of endangering Kim’s own ruling position in Pyongyang. While this is going on, Big Brother China has its own interests in manipulating the DPRK’s future.

Seems like an appropriate time for a good stiff drink or maybe some Valium all around.

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George H. Wittman
George Wittman served in the US Army during and after the Korean War and, in the following decades, he became intimately involved in national security, global intelligence matters and international business. Along the way he managed businesses, founded public service organizations, and now writes prolifically. Some of Mr. Wittmans's accomplishments: President of G.H. Wittman, Inc. a family firm founded in 1885 to manage family interests in exploration, mining and international trade; Co-founder of The Middle East Newsletter; and founding Chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy, a non-profit devoted to research on technological and policy aspects of national defense.

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