Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
The death of General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone in Baghdad airport last Friday, is likely to have major consequences for the entire world. One of the possible results of this operation might be a major war or, more likely, a wave of terror attacks and counter-attacks in the Middle East.
However, the U.S. strike might have also a noticeable impact on the situation in and around North Korea. Irrespective of what one thinks about the assassination and its ethical, legal, and political implications, it clearly demonstrated that Donald Trump and his administration are capable of making risky decisions and using force, even when their opponent is capable of delivering a powerful counter-strike.
Recently there had been growing suspicions that Donald Trump was what is known in China as a “paper tiger,” but the explosion at the Baghdad International Airport has put these suspicions to rest, and this has major implications in Pyongyang.
It might make sense to refresh our memory about the events of 2016-17. At the time Kim Jong Un, feeling enthusiastic about the successes of North Korean nuclear and missile scientists, gave the green light to the testing of prototype ICBMs and a thermonuclear device. The tests went well, but provoked an unprecedented backlash from the then-recently elected U.S. President, Donald Trump.
There had been growing suspicions that Donald Trump was what is known in China as a “paper tiger”
As many readers surely remember, 2017 was a seriously concerning year, when it did appear as though Donald Trump might be ready to authorize strikes against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, as well as against other targets.
His well-known disregard for U.S. allies and their interests was seen as an additional risk: many people believed that he would authorize a strike against North Korean targets, even though North Koreans were likely to reciprocate by shelling Seoul, conveniently within shooting range of their artillery.
Since then, North Korea watchers have argued whether, when he threatened the North Koreans with “fire and fury the world has never seen,” he really was bluffing.
At the time most observers, as well as decision makers, chose to act on the assumption that Donald Trump meant what he said: probably a major reason why the North Koreans made a policy U-turn and became more open to negotiations and concessions.
They were afraid that a military strike was coming, and began talks to win time and, they hoped, wait Donald the Dangerous out. It was also the likely reason for a U-turn executed by China: for a brief period of some six to ten months, Beijing took a very hard-line stance towards North Korea and enthusiastically supported the U.S.-initiated harsh sanctions regime in the UN Security Council.
Bluff or not, the 2017 campaign worked. North Koreans agreed to talk and, this author suspects, had the U.S. side taken more consistent position, some meaningful and lasting concessions could be squeezed from Pyongyang last year. Alas, the U.S. leadership did not use the opportunities which were created by the “fire and fury” campaign.
Last week’s killing of General Soleimani demonstrated that the world has underestimated Trump’s desire to take risks
However, as time went by, attitudes to the “fire and fury” rhetoric of 2017 began to shift. Subsequent worldwide events have, to some, demonstrated that the Trump administration, in spite of its tough rhetoric, is not particularly eager to use the force of arms and take risky measures.
As time went by, more and more observers were inclined to see the 2017 as a simple bluff, and it became widely accepted that Donald Trump did not have the guts to deliver on his threats of a military operation in a highly unstable part of the world.
But last week’s killing of General Soleimani demonstrated that the world has underestimated Trump’s desire to take risks (or, perhaps, overestimated his ability to make rational decisions.)
No doubt the North Koreans have taken note, and, most likely, see it as a warning sign. Soleimani’s death reminded them that excessively risky behavior might result in a U.S. drone quietly approaching some targets in Pyongyang suburbs.
This was a timely reminder. For much of the second half of 2019, North Korean officials continued to hint that after January 1 (or, perhaps, even after Christmas), the country would return to a bellicose stance and would likely resume nuclear and/or ICBM testing.
The 2020 New Year’s statement was a remarkably cautious document, but it still contained such a hint. Obviously, these veiled threats were based on the assumption that now, with China once again on their side, and with Trump seen as indecisive leader, the risks were not high. Now all this is far less certain.
In this new situation, North Korea is likely to act with much greater caution. The verbal bellicosity will be strong, but now North Korean decision-makers will think twice before authorizing anything sufficiently provocative – like, say, an ICBM testing or nuclear explosion.
On the other hand, it seems possible that the consequences of General Soleimani’s death will distract the U.S. from East Asia. This is good news for Pyongyang, but now, when the U.S. tiger has shown its teeth, it remains necessary not to be excessively provocative.
In 2018, North Korea’s major goal in dealing with the U.S. was to win time and avoid attack, which at the time appeared possible and even likely. In 2019 Pyongyang switched to a different goal, that of securing the relaxation of the sanctions regime. Now, after Soleimani’s death, it may revert to the old state of affairs, and decide that its immediate goal is to prevent a possible armed attack by the U.S.
In recent months Pyongyang decision makers were seemingly ready to increase the stakes, using provocations to create a sense of crisis and then use this manufactured crisis as a means to win a relaxation of the UN sanctions regime. Now, such behavior begins to look prohibitively dangerous.
So, one of the results of Soleimani’s death is that the North Korean government will behave with more (perhaps much more) restraint. Another likely result is the further increase in internal security.
Let’s be frank: North Korea’s generals are expendable. The death of Soleimani’s North Korean counterpart would not be seen by the country’s leaders as a reason to engage in anything but outbursts of flowerily rhetoric.
No doubt the North Koreans have taken note, and, most likely, see it as a warning sign
If Iran does nothing, its government will lose face in front of its domestic audience. This is not the case with North Korea. Unlike Iran, which enjoys some semblance of limited democracy, North Korea has no public opinion, and its government is not afraid of irrational outbursts of protest by the masses.
However, the death of Soleimani might be seen as a sign that the U.S. is now willing and capable of drone-hunting those they see as their enemies. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un and three to four people very close to him are likely to see this as a danger. Unlike common generals, these people are not politically expendable.
Thus, one should expect even more security inside the country. It will become even more difficult to get information out, and Kim Jong Un may be more cautious about where he goes and who he meets.
Domestic surveillance will increase, too – and this could be bad news for both students of North Korea and many North Koreans as well.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.The death of General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone in Baghdad airport last Friday, is likely to have major consequences for the entire world. One of the possible results of this operation might be a major war or, more likely, a wave of terror attacks and
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.