If Pyongyang builds it, they will come and pay

If Pyongyang builds it, they will come and pay
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The latest news out of North Korea confirms what many have suspected or even known. Pyongyang’s carrot-and-stick strategy rolls ahead despite the historic Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in June.

The recent report on the North’s hitherto undisclosed ballistic missile sites, Kim Jong Un’s inspection of an “ultramodern tactical weapon test,” or the news that South Korean aid groups and government-sponsored business seek to engage Pyongyang all are less a revelation than confirmation of Pyongyang’s ploy: Ensnare the United States in a protracted negotiation process while the Kim regime buys time and sanctions relief with which to advance its ever-growing threat capability.

What went wrong?


President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE, as he prepares for a follow-up summit with the North Korean leader, must ask himself: Why did Kim Jong Un in 2018 dramatically change his tune from provocations of the previous year to active diplomacy? Did last year’s “maximum pressure” — the combination of U.S. military threat, financial sanctions, and diplomatic isolation — really compel Kim to de-escalate and make concessions?

The record, both the decades preceding and the five months following the June Singapore summit, speaks for itself:

If Pyongyang builds it, they will come. And they will pay.

All the while, Kim’s concessions this year consist of a few smiles, handshakes and empty gestures such as decommissioning an underground nuclear testing site that he, after six tests, no longer needs.

President Trump’s “fire and fury” threat last year was met with a missile over Japan three weeks later and the North’s most powerful nuclear test to date. His “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission” ridicule at the United Nations drew the discourteous riposte of “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” punctuated by a powerful ICBM test two months later that removed all doubt as to North Korea’s ability to hit any state in the continental United States.

Nonetheless, in “sizing up” Kim in person, Trump may have wanted to believe he could tame the anti-social North Korean dictator and bring his nation, as Richard Nixon mused in the late-1960s about Mao Zedong’s China, out of its “angry isolation.”


History weighs against this tantalizing theory. President Nixon’s outreach to China was reciprocated by Mao Zedong’s to the United States. Secret talks between the two sides had preceded Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971 by nearly two years. Both nations were driven by the incentive to use the other as a counterweight to the common Soviet security threat. Nixon also saw the prospect of “winning back” China while he was hopelessly losing Indochina as a point of great political utility. Mao saw a strategic windfall in the People’s Republic of China’s replacement of Taiwan in the United Nations Security Council and elevated status in the world in the wake of a summit with the U.S. president. Above all, Sino-U.S. rapprochement was not about denuclearizing the other party.

Kim Jong Un’s dramatic image makeover from international pariah to global statesman is a different story, one that closely follows the script enacted by his father, Kim Jong Il, in the early-2000s. Kim Jong Il, upon inheriting power in 1994, never met with a single world leader until May 2000, when he visited Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing. Then he met with South Korean and Russian leaders before inviting President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMilitary spending has many points of contention: Closing overseas bases isn't one of them More adult Twitter users follow Obama than Trump: survey Pro-impeachment Democrats wary of Al Green's floor vote push MORE to Pyongyang and hosting, instead, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In January 2001, Kim imitated Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “Southern Tour,” the Chinese leader’s reaffirmation of the economic reforms undertaken a decade before with visits to the special economic zones established in southern China. Kim visited the same beachhead cities as Deng had, raising hopes of reform and opening. In August he visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The next year, Kim received Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in blandishments flowed into North Korea’s coffers while the nation’s covert uranium enrichment program forged ahead.

Kim Jong Un, who, for the first six years of his rule shunned all world leaders, views his own summit diplomacy today as a powerful lever for his backward nation’s legitimation as a veritable, responsible nuclear state. Indeed, Kim seeks an entirely new bilateral relationship with the United States — an open-ended negotiation process that leads to the eventual termination of U.S. military support for North Korea’s nemesis, South Korea. Kim’s pragmatism, calculated strategy and tenacious survival instinct vis-à-vis the other Korean state — one that is 50 times richer, immeasurably freer and a magnet to the North Korean people — not to mention recidivist U.S. gullibility, explain the sorry state of affairs today.

Becoming a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland while peppering its provocations with occasional peace ploys long has been Pyongyang’s revolutionary strategy. The next steps are to sue for a peace treaty or end-of-war declaration, which would dismantle the United Nations Command that serves to defend the South. In such a new, auspicious environment, Kim would next seek to evict the U.S. forces from South Korea and defang the U.S.-South Korea military alliance.

Trump must accept that he has been duped by Kim and shun further costly summit pageantry. Hubris, underestimation of the adversary, and ignorance of history will doom diplomacy. “Maximum pressure” always was more a minimalist policy; to date, no U.S. administration has levied fines in the billions of dollars on any of the many known partners of Pyongyang that enable the Kim regime’s proliferation and money-laundering activities.

The Obama administration, in seeking to compel Iran to return to the negotiating table, hit major banks that willfully violated U.S. sanctions laws with hefty fines: Over $500 million on RBS, ING, Credit Suisse AG, and Standard Chartered; nearly $1.5 billion on Commerzbank, $1.9 billion on HSBC; and a whopping $8.9 billion on BNP Paribas, the biggest bank in France. All the while, the administration made no comparable effort to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang.

Until the United States has maximized the single most powerful tool it has — sustained enforcement of targeted financial sanctions — future nuclear negotiations will only provide Pyongyang the cover it seeks under which to perfect its nuclear posture.

Pyongyang will build more bombs, and they likely will continue to pay — until the day the payment becomes incalculable.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Follow him on @sungyoonlee1.