Sixteen months after the Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, nuclear negotiators finally met for eight hours in Stockholm earlier this month. The talks fell apart after just one day, with North Korea’s representative Kim Myong Gil blaming the U.S. for its “failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.” North Korea’s foreign ministry rejected the U.S. Department of State press release that described the conversations as “good discussions” and proposed resuming talks in two weeks. Instead, the foreign ministry stated that it has “no intention to hold such sickening negotiations…before the U.S. takes a substantial step to completely and irreversibly abandon the hostile policy” against North Korea.
North Korea’s blustery statements — and its reiteration of the year-end deadline for the U.S. to change its “attitude” — reflect the Kim regime’s confidence and its perceived position of strength vis-à-vis the Trump administration. Moreover, Kim Myong Gil’s vague warning about resumption of nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing augur a tense autumn and a worrisome return to brinkmanship by Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un has several reasons for thinking his latest gamble to pressure Washington will pay off.
First, Kim has been emboldened by the president’s comments since the two leaders’ first summit in Singapore. Trump has said, among other things, that he has fallen “in love” with Kim, admired Kim’s autocratic behavior, absolved Kim of his role in the torture and death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, agreed with the dictator that U.S.-South Korea military exercises are “ridiculous and expensive,” and dismissed the slew of short-range ballistic missiles as being “very standard” and “not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement.”
Based on the president’s positive comments — and apparent disregard for the security concerns of U.S. allies — Kim was unafraid to test what Pentagon officials said was a short- to medium-range ballistic missile from a sea-based platform, reinforcing experts’ fears that the regime is making significant progress in missile-related technologies even as Kim is writing “beautiful” letters to Trump. Other reports and expert analysis have pointed to North Korea’s likely ongoing production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, improvements in the reliability of its short-range missiles, increased training exercises, and efforts to undermine missile defenses in the region. Kim’s weapons are now more mobile, more reliable, more diverse, and more dangerous.
Moreover, Kim undoubtedly viewed Trump’s firing of National Security Advisor John Bolton — whom the regime has called “human scum,” “dim-sighted,” and a “human defect” for his tough approach to the North — as an opportunity to exploit Trump’s perceived willingness to be softer on Pyongyang.
Second, since the Hanoi summit in February 2019 ended without an agreement on how to move forward on denuclearization, Kim has been keeping Washington and Seoul at arm’s length, while busily mending fences with Chinese and Russian leaders to ensure that neither Xi nor Putin has abandoned North Korea. During Xi’s visit to Pyongyang in June — the first by a Chinese head of state in 14 years — the rhetoric from both sides was warm, the banquets were lavish, and the state media coverage was positive in the vaulted language of socialist brotherhood that was forged when Chinese troops aided Pyongyang during the Korean War. The robust exchange of high-level visits since March 2018 and China’s consistent calls for softening sanctions almost certainly reinforces Kim’s assessment that his primary benefactor is still on his side.
Third, the Trump administration has been unable or unwilling to recognize the critical importance of alliance management in confronting the North Korea challenge with any credibility and sustainability. Its inaction has contributed to the dismaying degredation of South Korea-Japan ties, as a trade dispute has metastasized into the security realm. South Korea in August announced that it would pull out of the military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, but it asked Tokyo to share data on North Korea’s recent sea-based ballistic missile, underscoring the importance of security cooperation against a shared threat. But it is unclear if the Moon administration will retract its decision to annul the agreement, set to expire in November, given Seoul’s focus on engagement with an intransigent, aggressive Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un’s unwillingness to commit to working-level talks and his diplomatic brinkmanship suggests that he has his sights on another summit with Trump. He probably calculates that the president’s weaker position domestically and regionally would make him more pliable to Pyongyang’s demands, even as he faces a contracting North Korean economy and the bite of sanctions. In short, Kim has outplayed the United States, and Trump might be headed toward experiencing firsthand Kim’s nuclear extortion tactics.