About the Author
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
On May 4 and May 9, North Korea launched a series of ballistic missiles. While some predicted more tests, Kim Jong Un has chosen to hold fire — at least for now.
To understand why the DPRK leader chose to restart testing after almost a year and a half, we’d better try to understand what exactly he is complaining about, so that South Korea and the United States can make more effective policies regarding the North.
It’s not hard to determine what’s got Kim Jong Un hot under the collar: reading the North Korean narrative, including statements from the authorities and reports from its media, Kim’s complaints can be grouped into seven points.
1: FRUSTRATION WITH THE NO-DEAL SUMMIT
Everybody can agree that Chairman Kim was undoubtedly extremely disappointed by the Hanoi summit, which ended with no agreement.
No deal means no money, and without cash from outside, it will be almost impossible for Kim Jong Un to revive the North Korean economy.
The outcomes of Hanoi were even more unacceptable because Kim Jong Un offered up a huge concession, proposing the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Furthermore, he believes he did not demand a huge amount in return — only asking for partial sanctions relief.
From Kim Jong Un’s point of view, this proposal was fair to both sides, compounding the frustration.
Pyongyang might interpret this rejection of a fair deal in two ways: first, the goal of the U.S. is not a deal, but only the total surrender of the North. Second, the U.S. does not want any kind of compromise or resolution of the situation, but wants to maintain conflict with the North. Both sides are frustrated.
2. HATRED OF OBSTRUCTORS
According to the North Korean foreign ministry, Kim blames John Bolton, the White House National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of the State, for ruining the summit.
Trump had almost agreed to sign on the potential deal by the North, vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui has said, but Secretary Pompeo got in the way and persuaded the President to say no.
Even though the North has criticized both men, the weight of the attack has leaned more toward Pompeo for a couple of reasons. While Bolton is a well-known hardliner on the issue of North Korea, Secretary Pompeo has served as a messenger for Trump’s more pro-engagement approach.
After all, Pompeo has met Kim multiple times and ought to understand the true position of the North: Kim is willing to denuclearize in return for reciprocal measures including national security guarantees and economic sanctions relief.
Kim Jong Un has no choice but to think that President Moon is playing him for a fool
3. IRRITATING BY BAD ADVICE
Chairman Kim might have had seen three possible outcomes from the Hanoi summit; first, a step-by-step agreement and implementation; second, a comprehensive agreement with step-by-step implementation; and third, a comprehensive agreement and implementation.
He picked the first, and decided to propose dismantling the Yongbyon facilities. In the end, he failed to make a deal.
Who recommended that he take the first deal, rather than the others? It could have been the United Front Department’s (UFD) Kim Yong Chol, who was reportedly replaced in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit.
On the contrary, several top officials from the foreign ministry survived that aftermath, or were even promoted. That ministry typically has a more independent viewpoint, and might have had a more pessimistic view of the U.S. position before Hanoi.
UFD likely had a more optimistic view due to their frequent talks with South Korean counterparts. Chairman Kim has plenty of reasons to believe that this wrong advice from UFD originated from Seoul — and that President Moon was responsible.
4. LACK OF PROGRESS ON THE INTER-KOREAN FRONT
After three meetings with South Korea President Moon Jae-in last year, Kim Jong Un likely expected a significant amount of economic cooperation with the South to begin.
Even though there is a long list of economic sanctions against the DPRK, there are lots of other areas in which the South can help the North and remain in compliance with those measures.
For example, humanitarian assistance has nothing to do with sanctions, and issues related to the environment or tourism are not directly limited by them.
However, the South Korean government has given little — not even humanitarian aid — and, while it has granted them permission, is yet to allow South Korean businessmen to visit the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Kim thought Moon would rush to undermine the UN sanctions against the North, but the reality has been totally different: the South Korean President did not move, instead waiting cautiously for many months while closely reading the U.S. position.
Kim Jong Un likely expected a significant amount of economic cooperation with the South
5. EMBARRASSED BY THE “MEDIATOR”
Kim Jong Un also thought Moon would take his side right away and become an ally against the U.S.
When the South Korean President visited Pyongyang last September, he was treated in the best way possible. Mobilizing a lot of resources, Kim strenuously prepared a rare hiking event on the legendary mountain of Paektu.
He organized a short but large-scale stadium event in which President Moon gave a speech to 150,000 citizens of Pyongyang. He agreed to sign a military agreement through which tensions around the border area could be significantly alleviated.
Despite all those efforts, the South Korean media has described the role of Moon as that of a mediator, not a partner, with North Korea. A mediator, after all, means an honest broker and third party with a neutral distance from the negotiating players.
And if Moon says he is a mediator between the U.S. and the North, he acknowledges that he is not for the North, but for the U.S., because South Korea has an alliance with the U.S.
6. OUTRAGE OVER MILITARY DRILLS
Kim and Moon last year signed a series of agreements, including taking steps to ease military tension on the Korean peninsula. However, South Korea and the United States last month staged a combined air drill against the DPRK for two weeks.
The U.S. also held a provocative drill in Pyongtaek by deploying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). South Korea also remained silent when the U.S. made a practice launch of a Minuteman missile: a clear threat to the North.
South Korea has also recently purchased two F-35 stealth fighter jets from the U.S. — buying high-end weapon systems does not contribute to ease tensions. Furthermore, Seoul’s gloating about the purchase is an act of provocation, because the South is already superior to the North in terms of conventional weapons.
Kim Jong Un has no choice but to think that President Moon is playing him for a fool.
7. INSULTED BY FOOD AID
South Korea has also insulted the North by linking food aid to North-South relations. Food aid is one of the most conventional aspects of humanitarian exchanges, and should not be used in negotiations to manipulate the other party.
However, Seoul has argued that food aid is necessary to coax the North and improve the inter-Korean relationship.
That kind of approach is an insult to the North: the South is implying that it can control the North by giving them food. It is treating the North like nothing more than a beggar. This is not a goodwill gesture, but an insult.
Chairman Kim was angry and fired some missiles. Have his Furies gone away with the missiles? Some might have gone, but a major part of them should still be there. So, this list of complaints is useful.
Some points are understandable, while others are unreasonable. If Seoul and Washington want to get the North Korean leader back to the negotiation table, they’d better listen, and listen well, to what’s got him hot under the collar.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA