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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
The three meetings between President Trump and Kim Jong Un — Singapore, Hanoi, and, most recently in the DMZ — have made it easy to dismiss the very bumpy beginnings of North Korean diplomacy in the first year of the Trump administration.
2017 saw a series of North Korean long-range ballistic missile tests, reportedly demonstrating Pyongyang’s ability to reach the continental United States. In September of that year, North Korea also conducted an underground nuclear test that Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb.
The mercurial President Trump responded to the North Korean nuclear test with a provocative speech later that month to the UN General Assembly where he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.
This was followed by reported discussions within the inner circles of the Trump administration of a preventive military strike — giving North Korea the proverbial “bloody nose.”
Korea experts such as Georgetown’s Victor Cha were quick to caution over the unintended consequences of such a move. Writing in the Washington Post on January 18, 2018, Cha said that “the answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike. Instead, there is a forceful military option available that can address the threat without escalating into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”
It is easy to forget that in January 2018 the United States appeared on the brink of war with North Korea just as in January 2020 it appeared on the brink with Iran.
Cooler heads prevailed two years ago. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis had outlined in Congressional testimony in June 2017 the potential costs of a second Korean War.
As quoted by Business Insider, Mattis said he “would suggest that we will win. It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953. It will involve the massive shelling of an ally’s capital (Seoul), which is one of the most densely packed cities on earth…. It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.”
Mattis explained that because the threat from North Korea loomed so large and a military confrontation would destroy so much, he, President Donald Trump, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had all made a peaceful solution a top priority.
But the cooler heads are now gone. There are no longer U.S. generals to rein in Trump’s more impetuous instincts with regard to foreign policy at the Defense Department, the National Security Council, or in the White House as chief of staff.
They have been replaced by an inner circle which according to a December 19, 2018 article by Politico discussing the then-new chief of staff Mulvaney “let Trump be Trump.”
It was clearly Trump being Trump who gave the orders for the drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on January 3, although the rationale has been in a state of flux, apparently moving from “imminent threat” to deterrence.
It left the United States on the brink of a new Middle East war for seven days, before President Trump took an off-ramp from the crisis, and had the unintended consequence of the shooting down of a civilian Ukrainian aircraft by the Iranians.
So, what are the implications for Kim Jong Un and his regime? The South China Morning Post ran an article on January 13 advising, given the American president’s recent actions, that “as Trump targets Iran, North Korea’s Kim would be wise to tone down his own rhetoric.”
The article also pointed out that Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, “fearing that he may end up being a target,” went into hiding when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
Kim may, in fact, have determined to proceed with a degree of caution in light of the recent U.S. crisis with Iran. He has yet to deliver his promised “Christmas present,” widely interpreted as another long-range missile or nuclear test, if the U.S. did not end its “hostile attitude” and lift sanctions.
Axios interviewed national security adviser Robert O’Brien on January 12, where he noted that “he was cautiously optimistic about the fact that Kim Jong-un hasn’t yet delivered his promised ‘Christmas gift’ — which many analysts expected would be a nuclear weapons test.”
O’Brien pointed out that “we’ve been letting them know, through various channels, that we would like to get those [negotiations] back on track and to implement Chairman Kim’s commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
In January 2018 the United States appeared on the brink of war with North Korea just as in January 2020 it appeared on the brink with Iran
Other North Korea experts, however, have a different take on how recent events in Iran have impacted Pyongyang’s thinking.
ABC’s WJLA quoted Frank Aum, a senior North Korea expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former senior adviser at the Defense Department, as saying that the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani showed that the Trump administration is willing to take out officials of other governments as well as terrorists.
“So that puts North Korea on notice that the U.S. doesn’t bluff in terms of taking military actions…. I think North Korea is very much watching that situation carefully and they feel very good now about keeping their nuclear weapons.”
Experts have repeatedly pointed out for a number of years how the brutal ends of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up their weapons of mass destruction, have had a sobering impact on regime thinking in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un himself apparently wanted to keep the world — and Donald Trump — guessing in his new year’s message to the North Korean people.
As Bloomberg pointed out on January 1, there was “no speech as of afternoon local time and the Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency said there was no indication that one would be coming.” Instead, Korean state TV broadcast Kim in his nearly 4,400-word ‘Report on the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ stating that he was “no longer bound by his pledge to halt major missile tests and would soon debut a ‘new strategic weapon,’ adding to Trump’s foreign policy concerns as he seeks re-election this year.”
Another potential complication, if the U.S. and Iran lock horns again later this year, is the long-term extensive cooperation of Pyongyang and Tehran in the areas of missile technology development and nuclear proliferation.
This is outlined in a report titled “Iran and North Korea: Nuclear Proliferation Partners” published by United Against a Nuclear Iran. The report notes, in part, that “Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have long depended on external assistance from other states. North Korea, a country notorious for its extensive illicit export of ballistic missiles and related technology, has proven a particularly valuable partner.”
The report goes on to note that, according to the ‘2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,’ “North Korea’s history of exporting ballistic missile technology to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and its assistance during Syria’s construction of a nuclear reactor— destroyed in 2007—illustrate its willingness to proliferate dangerous technologies.”
And quoting the ‘Congressional Research Service,’ the reports adds that “Iran has developed a close working relationship with North Korea on many ballistic missile programs,” providing Iran “a qualitative increase in [ballistic missile] capabilities’ and advancing Iran toward its ‘goal of self-sufficiency in the production of medium-range ballistic missiles.”
If in a future crisis an Iranian missile does, in fact, cause U.S. military casualties, any fingerprint of North Korean missile components or technology being involved in the attack would greatly complicate any continued personal diplomacy between Donald Trump and the “lovable guy” Kim Jong Un.
So, for now, it appears that Kim Jong Un has decided to at least temporarily keep his powder dry as Pyongyang assesses the implications of the drone attack on Soleimani.
If the Trump-Kim Jong Un personal chemistry suddenly turns sour, could a drone be launched as the ultimate “bloody nose” at a Pyongyang palace in order to teach the Supreme Leader a lesson? Is what’s good for Tehran also good for Pyongyang?
Edited by James Fretwell