Two events coincided in April — a White House summit where Donald Trump met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and a meeting of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, where Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korean showcases shirtless soldiers lying on broken glass, smashing bricks on head North Korea's Kim rips US, promises 'invincible' military North Korea's Kim notes 'grim' economy while marking anniversary of ruling party MORE set an end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to abandon its hostile policies.
The situation on the Korean peninsula is now at an inflection point. While all three leaders say they desire additional summits, Kim’s deadline appears to establish an end point for the Trump-Kim bromance. If that is Kim’s intention, now is the time to re-examine the strategic assumptions that inform the pursuit of a peace and disarmament deal by the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Given the risk that negotiations will fall apart, the time from now until the end of the year must be spent preparing a “Plan B” that is based on Kim failing to denuclearize the North.
When Presidents Moon and Trump met at the White House, they re-affirmed the importance of the ROK/U.S. alliance as “the linchpin of security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.” A so-called coordinated read-out from the Blue House — the South Korean White House — affirmed support for President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE’s “top-down approach” to dealing with the North which can be described as unconventional and experimental.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un presided over the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, which saw him acquire the new title of “supreme representative of all the Korean people.” He also gave a significant speech in which he insulted President Moon, and said he was open to a third summit with the U.S. but only “if the U.S. adopts a correct posture,” since the next summit must be different from the one in Hanoi. North Korea will “wait with patience till the end of this year,” no longer. Kim’s new title and speech provide insight into the regime’s true intentions and its near and long term objectives which are being sought through a political warfare strategy we might call the “long con.”
Instead of recognizing this deep hostility, the ROK and U.S. strategy is based on the fundamental assumption that Kim can be co-opted or coerced into denuclearizing. U.S. officials say if Kim makes the right strategic choice he can achieve a brighter future. This assumes that he will prioritize economic development over the retention of nuclear weapons.
This also assumes that he has given up his strategy of pursuing the domination of the Korean peninsula by North Korea’s guerrilla dynasty and gulag state in order to ensure the survival of the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime through the use of subversion, coercion/extortion, and if necessary, force.
Paradoxically, both sides of the Korea policy community make the same erroneous assumption, though they believe there are different paths to denuclearization. The “engagers” believe concessions (i.e., sanctions relief), normalization of relations, an end of war declaration and peace process, reduction of alliance threats, and building trust will induce Kim to denuclearize. The “hardliners” believe that punitive measures will coerce Kim into denuclearization - i.e., if he is brought to his knees he will come to his senses.
The recent U.S. intelligence community estimate has laid bare the flawed assumption the north will denuclearize. Kim Jong Un has no intention of denuclearizing under any circumstances.
Therefore, the ROK/U.S. alliance needs a new superior strategy — a long game to outplay Kim’s long con. Simply recognizing Kim is playing the long con and conducting political warfare puts a new strategy on the right path. It can provide the realistic lens through which to view and assess all of Kim Jong Un’s actions.
The challenge now for the ROK/U.S. alliance is to figure out an acceptable and durable political arrangement that will protect, serve, and advance U.S. and ROK/U.S. alliance interests on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Then the alliance has to determine the ways and means to achieve that goal. These must include new international diplomatic efforts, “maximum pressure 2.0,” military enhancements, supporting cyber activities (defense and offense), and a robust information and influence campaign, including a strong focus on human rights. For the next eight months the ROK/U.S. strategy working group must carefully and quietly develop a new strategy, a “Plan B,” based on the recognition that Kim Jong Un will never agree to denuclearize.
David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also contributes to FDD’s Center for Military and Political Power. Follow him on Twitter at @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.