Recognizing that President Trump now views their nuclear negotiations through the prism of a personal friendship rather than a policy disagreement, Kim Jong Un is defeating Trump’s disarmament interest while also avoiding U.S. use of military force.
The North Korean leader’s strategic intent is to free his nuclear and ballistic missile program from U.S. threats of force, and to dissipate the international sanctions regime targeting Pyongyang. Kim is focused on maintaining relative personal cordiality towards Trump, cultivating Russian assistance, and overtly but carefully presenting the U.S. as unreasonably obstinate in its demands.
It’s playing out right now.
Take Kim’s rhetoric: Last week, Kim pledged to deliver a “telling blow” to U.S.-led sanctions. This week he responded to South Korean President Moon Jae-in begging request for a meeting by insulting him. Kim’s harsh tenor is notable in that Moon has embraced overt appeasement. That Kim now so openly insults him is indicative of his belief that he can induce Moon to push Trump for more concessions. But Kim is also hoping that Trump’s ego and his desire not to fail in negotiations will lead him to keep the talks alive, even amid increasing evidence that Kim is refusing to make basic concessions.
Is Kim right to make this assessment? Well, Trump’s decision to waive new sanctions and cancel longstanding military exercises justifies Kim’s confidence.
Yet that’s just half the Kim plan here. An imminent summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin forms the second line of effort. That summit will unveil a new Moscow-Pyongyang strategic partnership. Russia’s interest here is in frustrating U.S. efforts to achieve a detente with Kim, and in building economic access-influence routes into both North Korea and South Korea. Kim wants the Russians to increase their silent violation of sanctions against North Korea, but he also wants Putin’s help in deterring the U.S. from using force against him if sanctions fail. Expect a near-term North Korean purchase of advanced Russian air defense systems. As in Venezuela, Russian military trainers might also start arriving in North Korea as a tripwire against U.S. military action.
How should the U.S. respond here?
Simple. Commensurate escalation. Trump is rightly pursuing a grand bargain with Kim that sidelines currently irrelevant concerns. And he was clever to abandon the two leaders’ recent summit in Vietnam. But Trump is very wrong to think Kim is his friend. Under the tutelage of Kim Yong Chol, the young despot is skillfully degrading the U.S. sanctions campaign, weakening South Korean resolve, and building alternate strategic relationships outside of U.S. control. Unless Trump accepts this reality and escalates against Kim and his enablers, diplomacy will fail. Then he’ll face one of two sorry choices: Mlitary force, or acceptance of North Korea’s ability to destroy U.S. cities as far away as the east coast.