Like the leading character in a long-running television series, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has kicked off the latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula with familiar theatrics.
After cutting off all communications with South Korea earlier this month, the Kim regime bombed the building in which it had previously hosted South Korean diplomats. It has redeployed troops into demilitarized border areas and issued renewed threats of violence against the South.
The latest displays of bombast follow Kim’s scene-stealing performance in May, when he announced that North Korea would boost its investment in “nuclear war deterrence.”
For its part, US President Donald Trump’s administration has ignored the latest episode, and for good reason. After two years of playing along with Trump’s made-for-TV summitry, Kim is convinced that the bromance storyline has run its course, and that an older narrative will keep his ratings up.
Having banked his political gains from Trump’s fecklessness, Kim is now unambiguously asserting North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. To drive that point home, he has promoted the general in charge of the nuclear program to serve as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, while also rewarding 69 other generals who have contributed to the country’s strategic success in recent years.
Since the failed nuclear summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Kim has been consistent in both word and deed. Last April, he warned that Trump had until the end of 2019 to lift US sanctions on North Korea. Since then, the North has continued its short-range missile testing (chalking up noteworthy successes), expanded a missile production plant, and built new support facilities for its missile program.
Clearly, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to choke off North Korea’s clandestine sources of income and trade has utterly failed to alter the course of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs. American officials acknowledged as much last month when the US Department of Justice indicted 28 North Korean and five Chinese officials and bankers for (successfully) circumventing the sanctions regime. Since 2014, the indictment alleges, the North’s global network of front companies has -- with China’s help -- funneled $2.5 billion into Kim’s nuclear weapons, missile and high-tech programs.
Kim has been no less consistent in expanding North Korea’s massive conventional military capacity. While its military hardware remains far inferior to the US-furnished armor and aircraft across the border, the North has nonetheless managed to upgrade both the accuracy and reach of its weapons. It has also placed 70 percent of its 1.1 million-strong army within 100 kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone, putting South Korea’s capital well within its sights. By one estimate, the North could rain down 25,000 artillery rounds on the Seoul metropolitan area -- including a major US military compound -- in the space of just ten minutes.
To be sure, US and South Korean forces would have a major technological edge in an all-out war on the peninsula. But even a short-lived conflict would be devastating to Seoul, which, with some 25 million people, accounts for half of South Korea’s population and 70 percent of its gross domestic product.
Against this background, Trump’s effort to extort South Korea to quadruple its financial support for US forces stationed there is astonishingly irresponsible. Although negotiations to renew the expired US-South Korean cost-sharing pact remain at an impasse, a new stopgap deal at least ends the furlough of 4,000 South Koreans who work at US facilities. But with South Korea temporarily assuming the cost of these salaries, the deal will hardly improve Trump’s standing in the eyes of South Koreans.
Kim can take further comfort from the fact that Trump has also been browbeating Japan, demanding that it, too, boost its financial support for US forces within its borders. Though Japan is crucial to South Korea’s defense, the two countries have a rocky relationship. Last year, South Korea threatened to pull out of a bilateral intelligence-sharing arrangement before reversing course under US pressure. As in South Korea, most Japanese have no confidence in Trump’s handling of international affairs. Such factors inevitably will contribute to diplomatic disarray between the US, South Korea, and Japan, all of which will benefit Kim.
In addition to undermining US alliances in the region, Trump is also doing Kim a favor by escalating tensions with China, which now will be less inclined to rein in its client state. With China accounting for over 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, Kim has been cultivating a closer relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited Pyongyang last June. That meeting and others suggest that China is neither surprised nor particularly concerned about Kim’s behavior.
This is not to suggest that Kim has clear sailing ahead. Owing to US sanctions, limited food production, and various reform failures, North Korea faces formidable challenges at home.
Following a speech at the Workers’ Party of Korea’s annual plenum in December 2019, public remarks issued by Kim in February and April suggest that he may have spent the first half of this year focusing on domestic priorities. By forcing the closure of the Chinese border, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly hurt the North’s faltering economy. And the fact that Kim has imposed tougher oversight on implementation of his previous economic reforms suggests that more domestic trouble may be on the horizon.
With or without economic problems, Kim is unlikely to deviate from his family’s well-rehearsed oeuvre. Like past performances by his late father and grandfather, his repertoire will continue to feature threats of violence, sensational provocations and potentially even military incidents like the shelling of South Korean islands a decade ago. All signs indicate more brinkmanship on the part of the North. The leading character in the Korean Peninsula’s long-running psychodrama may still be new, but the play remains the same.
Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s director of public affairs. -- Ed.