Kim Jong Un has continued a family tradition of brinkmanship, bad faith negotiating, and rapid changes in policy by sending his sister to the Olympics, and having her last month ask the South Korean President for an inter-Korean summit.
Donald Trump and his administration continue to send mixed signals about the possibility of talks with the North and the threat of military action (and even war), while doing what no other prior administration has managed: convincing China to seriously implement a raft of tough sanctions against the North.
Yet, in a way, the two leaders of these very different countries are two of a kind: lucky pranksters who are chasing their good luck for all its worth.
RISE TO POWER
Donald Trump’s election victory was perhaps the greatest upset in U.S. electoral history. It was an impressive, if extremely fluky event: he is a remarkably implausible U.S. President, his character and style are not what is usually considered Presidential material.
Rising to power in a dominance ritual in which he disposed of the Republican Party’s kingmakers and potentates, and crushing all those who sought to oppose him, he has assembled an administration with some highly competent people (as well as a ragtag band of yes-men and hucksters), and created a media environment where his side of the political spectrum see a figure of national salvation.
Kim Jong Un, much younger than Trump, used a very similar playbook, albeit in very different circumstances. Rising to power in a rapid series of events as his father’s health quickly deteriorated between 2009-11, he has literally killed or disposed of many of the grandees that his father left behind.
Unlike Trump, Kim is now the unquestioned leader of his own fiefdom, with a far more monolithic media environment, but he too has surrounded him with a mixture of hacks and highly competent technocrats.
The Donald has remained lucky. His North Korea policy speaks far more to luck than any of his immediate predecessors. He has seemingly succeeded in what none of them were able to: getting China to enforce sanctions. The fears that he has stoked have helped to bring Beijing to heal like no other U.S. President.
South Korea and Japan remain loyal allies of the U.S., in spite (or perhaps because of) the brinkmanship. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in is wary of the Donald, he has done what he can to maintain a cordial relationship, at least outwardly. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to enjoy President Trump far more, and probably has far more time for the U.S. President’s caustic anti-China rhetoric.
At the same time, China, the rising power that has begun to assert itself as a future regional hegemon with its “Belt and Road Initiative,” has moved to isolate North Korea in ways that it previously would not have dreamed.
There is an element of practiced skill to the way that President Trump has sown confusion, discord and even veiled panic in many circles in both Washington and Beijing, and Xi Jinping seems to be playing ball partially because he cannot be sure that Trump might not follow through on the threat of a military escalation.
Trump’s North Korea policy speaks far more to luck than any of his immediate predecessors
And this fear is not just felt in Beijing, it is also felt in Seoul (though not much by the general public) and in Washington DC. We do not know how merited these fears are, but General McMaster, the head of the powerful National Security Council in Washington, appears to be sincere in weighing the use of military force against Pyongyang.
Nonetheless, we should not mistake President Trump’s good fortune for anything else: the fact that Beijing has decided not to call Trump’s bluff points to the fact that he is lucky that Xi has, as yet, decided to play ball. If Xi hadn’t, we do not know what might have happened, but it might not have been so good for President Trump and his administration.
In a rather different sense, Kim Jong Un has also been lucky. His scientists have proven to be far quicker and more adept at developing reliable missiles and nuclear warheads than was widely anticipated when he first took over. He has also proven to be remarkably fortunate in the fact that his purges of the North Korean elite have not provoked more unrest in the country.
The old maxim that “we must hang together or we will surely be hung separately” has held true even as Kim has moved against key members of the military and civilian elite over the last five years. His radical steps in the economic sphere have also, seemingly, helped the economy continue to grow.
A man who took over from his father when he was less than 30 years old has successfully subjugated a system of organized bureaucratic brutality and control to his will – an achievement in his terms, but one that undoubtedly required a great deal of good fortune.
He has presided over continued economic recovery – for which he gets a lot of credit (not all of it deserved). He has also seen his country achieve the remarkable status of being a nuclear-armed state capable of hitting the region’s three most important capitals, and, likely soon, the U.S. capital as well.
THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS
If there is one thing that can be said about luck, it is that it doesn’t last, at least when you’re at the roulette wheel. And here we have a situation could rapidly escalate out of control.
A North Korea facing an economic depression – which sanctions will probably precipitate – would be foolish to enter real negotiations aimed at denuclearization. They are watching what is currently happening to Iran, they have seen what has happened to Libya, Ukraine, and Iraq: nations foolish enough to accept security guarantees or economic benefits for giving up nuclear weapons.
No agreement satisfactory to the Trump administration and Pyongyang is likely to ever be agreed. That is, unless Washington settles for a testing freeze, a rather measly compromise that will unlikely be enough to get sanctions dropped.
If there is one thing that can be said about luck, it is that it doesn’t last
The effect of sanctions should not be underestimated. A North Korea facing economic devastation will be a more dangerous country. Beijing will fear the humanitarian and potential repercussions of a North Korea under severe economic strain. They may find ways to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
Given past experience, this seems the most likely outcome. If they do not, the risk of military confrontations will rise, and the stakes in this game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang will rise, potentially exponentially.
Seoul is already in an awkward position. With the offer of a summit between President Moon and Kim Jong Un, they have to decide whether to allow the yearly round of joint U.S.-ROK military exercises to go ahead.
They also have to figure out what they can offer at a summit. If it is just a meaningless event where Moon and Kim shake hands, this will probably do little to advance the primary aim of the Moon administration: avoid an escalation and avoid a war.
Right now, Moon has begun proceedings by sending his top spy chief to Pyongyang – this appears to be a signal of wariness at the suspicious overtures emanating from the Kim family regime.
While Moon’s position is rather difficult, he continues to play a cautious hand, giving little (minus the odd, awkward photo-op), and seeking to thread a difficult path between Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, and Pyongyang.
For Beijing, implementing sanctions right now may not be so bad: they have proven to Kim Jong Un that they cannot be relied on unconditionally and that they expect him to behave himself.
At the same time, they may force the Trump administration into a wretched position: escalate and risk the alliance system in Asia over the sanctions regime, or allow its bluff to be called.
At some point, they may be called to either put up or shut up, hit China with aggressive secondary sanctions if Beijing stops playing ball, or kick up a fuss while doing nothing.
For Kim Jong Un, the future is also far from bright. The country’s economy and weapons systems have improved greatly in the last seven years of his rule.
He has no obvious political rivals, yet the sources of growth – resources, textiles, and labor – are unlikely to continue to yield what they have going forward: there is limited demand in the world for what North Korea has to sell, at least for now.
Kim is going to need to figure out how to bring in investment and rebuild his country’s shattered infrastructure. In the current climate, anything longer-term than the odd mine or department store looks unlikely.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons, Rodong Sinmun, edited by NK News
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