The North Korean Game – What North Korea Wants

Trump Kim YongApparently, Kim Jong-un is trying once again to give the appearance he is willing to continue negotiations with President Trump on the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. The easiest explanation is that Kim is simply continuing his country’s well known propaganda ploy of delaying serious movement by appearing to be willing to talk – while doing nothing more than that.  On the other hand, it may be more complicated.

The timing of Kim’s last attempt to project friendliness is important from an economic standpoint.  It’s the end of the agricultural growing season and DPRK planners are facing another Fall/Winter season of severe need for food importation to help with the usual annual shortcomings for the rest of the year lasting until late Spring.  Kim needs to have the United States loosen its sanctions.  Apparently, there has been an increase in sanction-breaking transshipment of petroleum products – sometimes directly and sometimes by off-loading on to North Korean blockade-running tankers.  Conspicuously, the U.S. has not made a major issue of this.  Is it that Washington doesn’t want to?

Recent reports have stated that up to eight sites have indicated construction activity suggesting ICBM development.  As indecisive as such information may be, it nonetheless requires serious attention.  Obviously, if these reports are accurate, the Trump Administration has to consider carefully the DPRK’s pseudo-friendly negotiating position. None of this is unexpected.  The Kim family regimes for years have been using this tactic of appearing conciliatory while actually proceeding to enhance their military capabilities.  In American terms it’s called “a con job.”  The difference this time is that President Trump has turned on his own form of pseudo-charm offensive while appearing to attempt to blockade normal sea lanes into North Korea.  Right now the status quo is “wait and see.”  But to what end?

Pyongyang wants to continue building their ICBM’s with an eventual offensive nuclear capability.  That has to be a strategic given.  Meanwhile the U.S. maintains its threatening posture of a willingness and ability to launch a nuclear first strike.  Of course neither side wants that to happen.  So the implied question is, “What’s the next move?”  The answer may lie in the process of delay itself.  Delay and false friendliness might produce a seasonally related lessening of sanctions under the heading of humanitarian aid. Naturally, this would most likely be accompanied by a reduction in ICBM development activity – just enough to appear to be moving to the aim of eventual denuclearization.

In any case, this dance of mutual artificiality really only benefits the DPRK and its ambition to become nuclear-armed while being protected by camouflage.  In order for this waltz to be ended, Washington would have to take a stronger overt position in order to militarily counter Pyongyang.  Apparently, the tougher stance is not in President Trump’s deal-making strategy – or so Kim Jong-un and his advisors are guessing.  They just don’t believe Donald Trump is willing or politically capable of unilaterally launching a preemptive strike.  In other words the North Koreans believe the U.S. is bluffing.

How does Washington convince the North Koreans otherwise?  The answer is that they can’t without actually launching some form of decisive attack.  This is not an action movie where the good guy shoots the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.  To stop this opposing gunman, you have to shoot him in such a way as to prevent him permanently from shooting back – which means killing him.  And this is just what Kim and his boys don’t believe will happen.  Remember the North Korean method of alternating tough guy, reasonable guy ploy has worked through several administrations.  Kim is being advised that all they have to do is wait until Trump leaves office or is otherwise politically restrained.  So the question exists, “When, if ever, will Washington under a Trump Administration be willing to launch a first strike?”  At most the Kim administration has only a maximum of six years to worry about that.  Surely, they think, they can play the Trump crowd for that long!

From the North Korean standpoint, Pyongyang can offer to cease activity on one to several of the current ICBM development sites and accept international inspection in exchange for a reduction of the sanctions.  It just has been announced that they have even made that suggestion to the South Koreans.  In practice this could be agreed upon with apparent good will in seeking to overcome obstacles.  Washington and President Trump would be expected to go along even though demanding more, but being satisfied with marginal changes.  There is no pressure from either side of the Washington political aisle to do otherwise.  The Kim regime knows this and so do their protectors in Beijing. Time is seen by the DPRK to be on their side – just so they don’t do anything stupid, except that there is a wild card yet to be considered.

The strategy of North Korea depends on their current perception of U.S. missile development and use.  The fact is that what they should be most worried about is American anti-ballistic missile development.  It is this phase of missile strategy that is currently the highest priority for Washington.  To create an effective missile shield against an opponent with only a few nuclear armed missiles capable of offensive action is the key to the U.S. defense posture.  It also happens to be the highest priority for both Russia and China.  The DPRK would want to have that same ability, but none of its current allies are willing to share their early phase advances.  This places North Korea at a disadvantage in threatening the U.S. and clearly advances the American negotiating position.  It’s time for Pyongyang to go back to its negotiating drawing board!

There is an additional problem that compounds the issue.  There is always the potential of a military coup in Pyongyang.  The DPRK bases its existence on its military will as much as its military strength.  This can not be overlooked in any analysis of “The Hermit Kingdom.”  There is a tendency for contemporary American analysts and politicians to think of the North Korean military and its leadership in terms of Western military logic. The North Korean military is imbued with an anti-U.S. hatred.  The United States is blamed for any and all deprivation the DPRK has suffered.  This has been the way China wanted the “Korea Issue” to be defined and exploited.

Going back to the armistice agreement at Panmunjom, Beijing has successfully manipulated the DPRK as part of their own defense policy.  The evolution of North Korea as a nuclear ally of the PRC has been an integral part of Beijing’s military stance, and remains so today.  Ultimately, only the Chinese can influence the DPRK’s military to begin to see any advantage in arranging a serious “denuclearization.”  To not recognize this and act accordingly is a venture in futility.  So it all boils down to this: We know what Beijing is.  We just don’t know their price!  The road to North Korean surrender of their nuclear ambitions goes straight through Beijing.