In North Korea, Trump Faces Another Potential Disaster

World Politics Review, 18.06.2020
Frida Ghitis, columnista en política internacional

Protesters hold a photo of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a rally near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea. (AP/Ahn Young-joon).

Amid a storm of domestic crises, and with less than five months until Election Day, President Donald Trump suddenly faces the prospect of having his signature foreign policy initiative, once quietly stalled, unravel spectacularly. Trump took personal charge of the daunting North Korea file early on, all but proclaiming victory after a groundbreaking, made-for-TV meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un in Singapore two years ago, immediately after which he announced on Twitter: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Back then, that sounded preposterously premature. Today, it brings faint echoes of Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 declaration of “peace for our time” after returning from Munich in 1938—another legendary misreading of negotiations with a tyrant.

The likelihood of North Korean nuclear disarmament and improved stability in the Korean Peninsula—the ultimate goal of the Trump-Kim talks—looks as distant today as it has in years. The odds now favor escalation and even confrontation.

Part of the reason is that Pyongyang is struggling with the economic shockwaves of the coronavirus pandemic. Although it claims it has no cases, North Korea shut down its border with China, the vital pathway for trade, with devastating repercussions. That may be the reason why it is growing visibly anxious and increasingly belligerent.

On Tuesday, in a dramatic display of its current displeasure, North Korea blew up the joint liaison building used for talks with South Korea in Kaesong, near the Demilitarized Zone that divides the North from the South. In addition to reporting the “terrific explosion,” North Korea threatened to move its forces into the DMZ, which could trigger a military confrontation.

It was all the culmination of a recent series of escalating threats, signaling the end of what the North and South had branded a “new era of peace” in 2018. One proximate cause of North Korean anger is the South’s failure to prevent activists on its side of the border from sending balloons carrying messages and propaganda leaflets into the North. But the ferocity of the response suggests something else is at play. The maneuvers may be an effort to have South Korea pressure Washington to ease its economic sanctions.

The rising tensions have put Kim Jung Un’s powerful sister on center stage. Kim Yo Jong had already threatened to destroy the liaison office days earlier, a warning widely viewed, mistakenly, as merely symbolic. She described South Korea as “the enemy” in a statement made public by the government’s Korean Central News Agency, KCNA.

Now in charge of the South Korea portfolio, according to state media, Kim Yo Jong suggested more military action may be in the cards. The fact that her warning about the liaison office turned out to be all too real makes her other threats more disturbing.

Last weekend, an official in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry threw cold water on the aspirations of South Korea, the U.S. and others for a successful resolution to the impasse with Pyongyang. In a statement, the official declared that Seoul should give up its “nonsensical” demands for denuclearization and reasserted the North’s intentions to continue building up its military capabilities.

This represents a massive blow to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has staked much of his presidency on making progress in relations with the North. In fact, it was Moon who acted as a conduit in starting Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim.

For Trump, the news is not only deeply embarrassing, but disastrously timed. Trump flouted the advice of experts and granted Kim one of his most coveted demands: a direct meeting with the United States. Previous U.S. administrations had insisted on multilateral talks. But Trump thought he could personally persuade the North Korean dictator to make a deal, if he made an enticing offer.

Over the course of three high-profile summits, in Singapore, Hanoi and at the DMZ, Trump drew breathless attention from the global media, while handing Kim enormous propaganda victories. Trump didn’t just raise Kim’s stature, he also lavished him with praise, which was duly utilized by the North’s domestic propaganda machine.

Despite the meetings and the public accolades and bizarre proclamations by Trump that Kim wrote him “beautiful letters” and that they “fell in love,” the process became stalled. The North continued developing fissile material, and there was no sign that Kim intended to shed any of the nuclear weapons that he perceives as the only impregnable guarantee of his regime’s survival.

Trump disparaged the efforts of previous administrations, appearing to view the challenge as one akin to a real estate deal that only he could hash out. Trump tried to tempt Kim with upbeat assessments of how much money his country could make if it were to open itself to foreign investment and development, which it might be able to do in exchange for shedding its nuclear program.

But the approach suffered from a fatal flaw. Economic development is less important to Kim than regime survival. He undoubtedly knows that Libya’s late leader, Moammar Gadhafi, gave up his nuclear weapons in 2003 in exchange for sanctions relief, only to lose power and his life eight years later in a popular uprising turned civil war in which NATO intervened.

The collapse of talks between the Trump administration and the Kim regime was an embarrassment for Trump, but at least the quiet allowed him to keep the topic off voters’ minds so close to November. But the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic is making the status quo untenable for Pyongyang. The Kim family is under pressure.

The North’s 880-mile long border with China has been closed since January. North Korea strives for self-sufficiency, but it is nowhere near achieving it. Imports from China are vital. If the border cannot reopen soon, the country could reach a breaking point. The strategy now seems to be to create a crisis with the South to raise the stakes for Washington.

The chances that Kim will decide to disarm in the next five months may be close to nonexistent, but not so the chances that he will opt for a confrontation with South Korea. Can Kim pressure Trump to throw him a lifeline this close to the election? Kim, who has so far outplayed Trump, benefiting more from the talks than Trump has, seems to think he can win again.

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