Pulling the Rabbit Out of the Hat: Kim Jong Un’s Path Out of the Nuclear Crisis

Everyone has a pet thesis about what is going on and what will happen on the North Korean issue over the next several months. In mid-January, I laid out what seemed to be six likely possibilities to keep in mind. Ten weeks later, I think we can winnow the choices down to two.

(Photo: Getty-Reuters.)
(Photo: Getty-Reuters.)

The first possibility is that we are in the middle of a giant North Korean deception operation, and that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) will attack at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, April 28, but doesn’t want anyone to figure that out. That’s only a guess, and not even a good one, but it is pretty much as good as most of the speculation that is going around about sanctions, their effect and how the North is responding.

The second possibility, essentially one of the original six, is that Pyongyang knew where it was going from the point at which it decided on the fourth nuclear test—probably by late November last year; it signaled the goal immediately after the test in a Choson Sinbo article on January 7; and it has continued along that path with remarkable consistently ever since.

What are those signals, and what is the endpoint? Stripped of most of the qualifiers and weasel words, there is now reason to conclude that at some point—and the upcoming seventh party congress would be as good a venue as any—Kim Jong Un plans to declare the success of his byungjin policy and that, having achieved what Pyongyang is portraying as an overwhelmingly strong nuclear deterrent force, to claim that it is now possible for the regime to begin to shift its focus from the military to the civilian economy.

The idea of a declaration of such a shift of resources is not an analytical chimera. It is not a judgment on whether or not the North will actually be able to make such a shift. The key is not whether such a strong North Korean deterrent force is a reality, not even whether Kim believes it, but whether he will set out this position as the philosophical basis for a new direction in policy. It needs to be borne in mind that Kim Jong Il used a similar public rationale in 2000 as the foundation for what became his modest July 2002 economic reforms. In other words, the question is whether the idea that enough has been done on national defense will become an engine for new policies that cannot be justified under old concepts.

In preparation for such a break with previous policy, ever since the vote in the UN Security Council on the new DPRK sanctions resolution in early March, Kim Jong Un has acted according to what he seems to consider a successful playbook, one he used last August. The essence of that was: a crisis erupts; Pyongyang issues harum-scarum statements but essentially cordons them off from the population at large, other than to use them as rallying points to encourage the population to work harder on economic goals; finally, Kim declares a victory “without having fired a shot,” and credits that success to the North’s possession of nuclear weapons.

To put things in the current context, despite a steady stream of high-level, bombastic North Korean statements threatening all manner of mayhem on the South, the North’s domestic media have not rallied the population for anything other than working harder for economic goals in preparation for the upcoming party congress.

Rather than military preparations, the focus has been on what has been termed the “70-day campaign” as the lead up to the congress. Over the past month, there have been several waves of mini-propaganda campaigns against Washington and Seoul designed to get the population’s blood boiling. Each time the emotional level has reached a peak the regime has flipped the switch and brought the focus back to the economic tasks at hand. As a result, unless there is other evidence of concrete preparations to follow through on any of Pyongyang’s frequent threats about preemptive strikes and reducing Seoul to ashes, this does not, at the moment, look like a country preparing for significant conflict.

Simply put, Kim is focused on creating an atmosphere that will support a successful party congress. That congress, not getting into a dangerous escalation with the US, is what will cement his rule. A successful congress, of course, requires, in equal measure, demonstration of an effective shield against external pressure while accomplishing a long list of tangible achievements domestically. For outside observers, the former tends to overshadow the latter, but inside North Korea, there would seem to be no mistaking which has priority.

The pattern of signals the regime has been sending to the domestic audience is by now consistent and unmistakable. Below are a few examples.

  • On February 28, DPRK media carried a lengthy letter under Kim’s name thanking “1.5 million students and workers” for expressing the will to join the KPA in response to a KPA Supreme Command “crucial statement” several days earlier that had threatened Washington and Seoul with crushing strikes for their plans to launch decapitation operations against the North.

The key to Kim’s letter was not the windup, however, but the pitch. The letter ended with the admonition that students should stay in school and workers at their posts in order to “achieve greatest successes conducive to building a prospering country by waging an unprecedented labor struggle and intensive studying at their workplaces and schools with the feeling that they are in the same trench as the service personnel.”

  • On March 16, the “government, political parties, and organizations of the Republic” issued a joint statement expressing outrage, again at US-ROK decapitation exercises, and promising to “pulp and bury” those attempting to harm Kim Jong Un. The statement spelled out, “The state law of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea specifies that, should the supreme dignity of the country be put in danger, all strike means, including nuclear strike means, must be fully mobilized to preemptively wipe out the countries and objects which have been involved in it directly or indirectly.” The statement ended, however, not with a call to arms but with the by now familiar theme that the way for the people to “protect and defend” Kim was “with a great victory of the 70-day battle. . .”
  • If there were any doubt which way Pyongyang wanted the domestic winds to blow, two days later, on March 18, North Korean media reported that Kim had appeared at the opening of construction of a major new building project—Ryomyong Street—in Pyongyang. The project was described as developing an area across from Kim Il Sung University for apartment houses for “scientists and researchers including educators of Kim Il Sung University, nursery, kindergarten, laundry, post office and other public buildings and public service amenities. Kim was cited as making a “passionate appeal” to complete construction of the street within this year, noting that:

Construction of the street is not merely for formation of a street but serves as a political occasion of clearly showing the spirit of the DPRK standing up and keeping up with the world, despite all sorts of sanctions and pressure by the U.S. imperialists and their followers, the appearance of the country advancing to realize the great ideal of the people and the truth that the DPRK is able to be well-off in its own way and nothing is impossible for it to do.

Completing the construction, Kim said, would enhance optimism “about sure victory and once again demonstrate our strength . . .”

  • Perhaps the closest things have come so far to real mobilization-type rhetoric was a carefully scripted but very short campaign that began on March 26 with the “long-range artillery force of the large combined unit of the KPA on the front” issuing an “ultimatum” to Park Guen-hye to apologize and punish those responsible for decapitation planning or face annihilation. That ultimatum (with no deadline specified) was followed up by salvos of supporting statements in the media. Students were said to be “petitioning for military service rather than admission to universities”; workers and farmers were quoted as wanting to join the army to “wipe out the provokers.”

Yet just as this campaign seemed to reach a peak, on March 28, the regime let the air out of the balloon with media reports that Kim Jong Un had appeared at a store and health complex with his wife, hardly an image designed to foster a military mobilization.

  • On March 28, Rodong Sinmun carried a political essay employing, as these essays do, typically poetic and emotional expressions of sacrifice and allegiance to the leader. Its main message, however, did not waver from the economic priority.

“Today’s 70-day battle toward the Seventh Party Congress is indeed a furnace of struggle that verifies the millions of soldiers and people’s loyalty toward the party and the leader.” The hot imagery continued—“the sweat of increased production dropped amid trials” is “speechless eloquence that proves the life of a peacetime human-bomb warrior who responds to the leader’s call not with words but by presenting his heart.

In other words, essentially picking up Kim Jong Un’s instructions from his letter on February 28, the essay’s message was stay at the machines, work hard and produce.

Looking Ahead

With about a month to go until the US-ROK exercises end, we still have to go over hill and dale, more posturing, and possible missteps on either side. Concern about miscalculation, of course, is the bane of our existence in these situations, and each time it seems to get more worrisome. Maybe this time it is worse. If Kim Jong Un is dancing on the edge of the precipice, he must realize that the drop is steeper than it has been before.

He also knows, however, that once through the joint exercises, the way could be open for him to move into stage two. Kim’s declaration of a “bloodless and warless” victory at the end of the US-ROK exercises will not be a surprise to anyone who has read the March 28 political essay, which notes that is exactly what happened last summer. “In August 2015 again, was it not the same invincible faith that turned the harsh waves of war into nothing and achieved bloodless and warless great victory?”

Here is a new working hypothesis to keep on the table. One can never be sure of the timing of a specific North Korean proposal, nor the vehicle in which it will be presented. In essence, these will be the opening moves:

  • Kim declares byungjin a success, i.e., a sufficiently strong nuclear deterrent to allow concentration on the economy and, potentially, reduced spending on the military (the latter were, in fact, part of the original byungjin concept as explained in Kim’s March 31, 2013 plenum speech); and
  • Pyongyang makes a major proposal on replacing the armistice, linking progress on a peace agreement to movement on the nuclear front. This would be put under the umbrella of the need for the “peaceful environment” Kim has several times said was required for economic growth.

Once again, as at the beginning of this drama in early January, Choson Sinbo was used to send an important signal. On March 15, the same day as reports in central DPRK media of Kim Jong Un guiding a test of a missile warhead, the Choson Sinbo carried the third of a three-part series. The article cited the March 9 offer advanced by the Chinese foreign minister for holding “denuclearization negotiations and the discussion of a peace agreement at the same time,” the first time the North has acknowledged the Chinese idea, and seemingly a step back—albeit a small one—from earlier, harsh North Korean criticism in a March 4 government statement of the “big powers” monopolizing the United Nations, “including the United States and fools who follow them.”

Equally, if not more important, the article singled out Kim Jong Un’s remarks from March 9 that, “the real ‘enemy’ that North Korea’s nuclear force has to deal with is nuclear war itself.” It implied that this quotation should be read in the context of a June 2013 National Defense Commission (NDC) statement—which the article went out of its way to note was released only a few months after the declaration of the byungjin line—which had proposed high-level talks with the US, stating that, The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the behest of our leader and our general, and it is the policy task that our party, state and millions of soldiers and people must accomplish without fail.”

A month later, in July 2013, in a private meeting with an American delegation of former government officials, DPRK officials expressed consternation that Washington did not seem to grasp the importance of the NDC statement.

One Step Beyond

Tactically, Pyongyang might well imagine at the point of a new DPRK proposal for talks, Beijing stepping in and declaring that this was exactly the purpose of the UN sanctions, and, not coincidentally, the essence of China’s proposal for parallel peace and nuclear talks. Indeed, PRC media accounts of Xi Jinping’s meetings in Washington last week with President Obama and Park Guen-hye at the Nuclear Security Summit might be read approvingly by the North. Rather than just indicate full Chinese support for sanctions, they imply that Beijing will also insist that “fully and strictly” carrying out relevant UN resolutions includes efforts to achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through dialogue. That’s the card Kim Jong Un has left to play at a time of his choosing.

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