Pyongyang’s portentous New Year’s resolution

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The sedentary delivery against a warm, patrician backdrop aside, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address showed all the banality of his and his grandfather’s formulaic carrot-and-stick pronouncements.

Since 1972, following the sudden Sino-U.S. rapprochement, the great leitmotifs in the North Korean helmsman’s annual speeches have remained constant:{mosads}

  1. Reaffirmation of the Great Leader’s greatness and, thus, a summons of absolute loyalty and lifelong servitude by the populace;
  2. Ideological machinations on the theme of ethno-nationalism against South Korea under the bewitching slogan, “By the Korean Nation Ourselves”; and
  3. Blame the United States for its “hostile policy” and the conditions of unrelenting privation and repression inside the Workers’ Paradise. In other words, “Yankee imperialists, go home!”

These bold directives boil down to the expectation of Kim emerging as the undisputed, reigning, de jure Supreme Leader of a united and decidedly despotic Korea.

Granted, it takes a leap of faith for outside observers to entertain the thought that the bizarre dictatorship of the very backward Democratic People’s Republic of Korea actually might keep an end game close to its heart. But one must ask, “If not, what’s the alternative for the Kim regime? Muddle through forever depending on the goodwill of its neighbors?”

For the Kim dynasty, fending off and, one fine day, absorbing the very attractive Korean state across its southern border is not a lifestyle choice; it’s a matter of survival. And Kim showed that he stands today closer than ever to reaching his ultimate state victory.

As expected, this was a more tempered speech than last year’s. With the possibility of another meeting with Donald Trump looming — not to mention first meetings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Japan’s Shinzo Abe — Kim has more to gain by appearing reasonable. He came across as more peace-prone, as he did for most of 2018. Shedding his former image of an anti-social, murderous tyrant for that of an outgoing, reasonable statesman is a profitable business model for Kim. This should fool no one, but predictably, it has.

Consider Kim’s speech a year ago. Of all the things he said, this was the most consequential: “The Workers’ Party of Korea and the government of the Republic will never cease to struggle and advance until achieving the final victory of the revolutionary cause of Juche.” Translated into plainer English, Kim meant that the completion of the North Korean revolution, as in liberating the South, is a non-negotiable proposition.

{mossecondads}This unwavering pledge of allegiance to himself last year came in the penultimate paragraph of a lengthy speech. This year, however, the radically nicer Kim masked his ambitious pan-Korean campaign under a fuzzier formula of striving to “fight to the end for the victory of the socialist cause.” This key declaration came early in his address, after only three mentions of “revolution” or “revolutionary,” out of a total of 13. All other major demands and pleas in Kim’s speech are necessary conditions to this revolutionary goal.

While Kim’s concerns in 2018 ranged from mass-producing “nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles” to dictating to South Korea to break its laws in resuming aid to the North, his decrees this year were less grandiose and aggressive — yet, more pernicious.

Following the playbook perfected by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, he called on his southern compatriots to continue to disarm unilaterally and distance themselves from the United States (“completely stop” the “introduction of war equipment, including strategic assets from the outside” and end “joint military exercises with foreign forces”).

He called on the United States to forge a “lasting and durable peace regime” and bring about the “complete denuclearization [of the Korean Peninsula].” The phrase “of the Korean peninsula,” a not-so-secret code word for the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, is mentioned in the original Korean text but intentionally omitted in the official English translation. Naturally, Kim made these demands while making no concession on multiple United Nations Security Council prohibitions on nuclear and ballistic missile programs of his own.

In 1972, Kim Il Sung, spooked by the Nixon administration’s outreach to Beijing, launched an ambitious peace offensive. In his New Year’s Address, Kim said, “Our armed forces are entirely for self-defense.” He invited American journalists to his office. In May, he told reporters from the New York Times, “Frankly speaking, this enormous expenditure on defense building has … slowed down the rise in the living standards of the people.” In so doing, he came across as reasonable, earnest, modest and even amenable to arms reduction.

In June, he told a Washington Post reporter that the North and the South should “withdraw their armed personnel and military installations from the Demilitarized Zone,” conclude a peace agreement, and then, “U.S. troops must get out of south Korea.”

Today, Kim Jong Un not only is armed with nukes and intercontinental ballistic missiles, he also knows how to maximize his grandfather’s carrot approach. That Kim masked the insidious nature of his address under the soft glow of library lamplight, seated in an oxblood armchair, shows the evolution of the young leader’s skills as a masterful manipulator.

On the other hand, the United States shows little sign of having a counter-strategy or the fortitude to steadfastly enforce sanctions against Pyongyang. Unfortunately, more ominous developments are in store.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Korean March First Movement against Imperial Japan and the subsequent founding of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. It also marks the centennial of the Chinese May Fourth Movement, essentially an outpouring of anti-Japanese Chinese nationalism. In the coming weeks, Kim will call on South Korea and China to co-sponsor commemorative events. The renewed inter-Korean ethnic bond and triangular Sino-Korean bonding likely will render sanctions enforcement toothless.

For President Trump, a follow-up summit under the present circumstances would be to lend a hand to Kim’s sanctions-busting campaign. Kim’s next step would be to emasculate Seoul through “finding a new way for defending [his nation’s] sovereignty” of becoming a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland. The danger of miscalculation and war would rise exponentially.

With resolute will, the Trump administration must enhance its leverage by enforcing sanctions over the next two years at a minimum. The time for engaging Kim in summit pleasantries will not come until the United States has accumulated sufficient leverage to bankrupt the Kim regime.

Kim has reaffirmed his revolutionary New Year’s resolution. It’s time for President Trump to discard the notion that he can tame Kim. To prevent war, he first must pauperize Pyongyang.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula Donald Trump Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un North Korea US-North Korea relations

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