NORTH KOREA’S abrupt change in tone yesterday may have caught some off guard, but it is hardly inconsistent with the country’s well-established playbook.
Kim Jong-un is fully aware that a day is a long time in politics and his decision to turn away from the more statesman-like image he has presented in the last few weeks is calculated to strengthen his position ahead of a planned meeting with Donald Trump – a meeting which Kim requested. It is also consistent with the North Korean tack of deploying sudden shifts in strategy.
North Korea could well live up to its promise to withdraw from the Trump meeting over Washington’s demand that it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal. But then North Korea would end up with nothing. It is unlikely the US will change its policy of maximum pressure. Instead, it is likely North Korea is simply seeking to widen the scope of the upcoming dialogue.
If it has been difficult to predict Kim’s positions, then it has also been difficult to gauge the overall approach of the US, judging from statements made by the country’s National Security Adviser John R Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Bolton said North Korea should receive no benefits, including the lifting of sanctions, until it surrenders its entire nuclear infrastructure, citing Libya as a precedent. Pompeo, on the other hand, put the emphasis on the American investment that would flow into North Korea if it agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.
Still, Kim’s sudden shift raises the prospect that the world may have now come perilously close to a situation in which the North Korean leader cannot be trusted. The North Korean leader may seek to demonstrate strength in a way that could literally be explosive. What is required now is an intensification of diplomacy to stave off any potential deterioration of gains made over the last few weeks.
The delicate tango being danced has implications for the safety and security of the world. Any fallout will have serious repercussions. North Korea has already courted support from China, with Kim meeting President Xi Jinping of China twice in the past two months. In these talks, Kim has sought support for his country’s long-standing demand that the US and its allies take synchronised steps to satisfy the North’s security needs in return for any phased denuclearisation.
As the North’s biggest economic benefactor, China can potentially shift the balance. However, Trump has more or less declared a trade war with China, meaning there is the danger of a significant global economic rupture if things go awry and if China flexes its muscle.
Though hardly a surprise, Kim’s latest move dramatically raises the stakes.