To tame America: Kim Jong Un’s stealth mind tricks
The North Korean chief negotiator’s discourteous reference to the failed talks with his U.S. counterparts in Stockholm the past weekend as “revolting” is not mere ill manners. It represents a strategy of psychological manipulation reminiscent of that of Shakespeare’s Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew.”
North Korea’s mind tricks, seldom noticed, are an essential complement to its nuclear posturing. Bombs and missiles may in Pyongyang’s adversaries trigger anxiety, but strategic deception plants soothing hopes of denuclearization. Provocations create crises, while post-provocation cajolement reaps tens of billions of dollars worth of blandishments. That’s the decades-old carrot-and-stick strategy: provocations, de-escalation, negotiation, win concessions.
With patience and guile, Pyongyang’s post-abuse sweet talk may literally disarm both the U.S forces stationed in South Korea and South Korea itself. Already, otherwise intelligent folks in government in Seoul and Washington are resigning themselves to living with a nuclear North Korea under the escapist fantasy that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), instead of seeking the maximalist goal of reunifying the Korean peninsula on its own terms, is but a paranoid regime moved merely by the minimalist goal of muddling through — in perpetuity — as the perpetual inferior Korean state.
If the Kim Jong Un regime indeed were but a poor player content just to get by, what explains its preemptive actions since the made-for-TV meeting between President Trump and Kim at the inter-Korean border village on June 30?
Three weeks after this “historic” moment, on July 22, Chinese and Russian warplanes held an unprecedented — or, “historic” — combined drill flying through South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone at will, as another Russian plane brazenly entered South Korean airspace. The pressure tactic against Seoul, the weakest link in the U.S.-led trilateral (with Japan) alliance structure in Northeast Asia, gave wind to North Korea’s game of driving wedges among the three democracies. The following day, Kim, showed off an upgraded nuclear submarine likely capable of launching multiple nuclear warheads and, that same week, “guided” the launch of new ballistic missiles that can hit every part of South Korea.
Following the successful missile test, Kim accused South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who has staked his presidency on rapprochement with the North, of “suicidal acts” by purchasing U.S. F-35 stealth planes and planning for combined military drills with the U.S. in August. Kim clarified that the missiles were a “warning” against “South Korean military warmongers.” On July 27, which North Korea celebrates each year as “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War,” Kim struck a less bellicose tone and attended a National Symphony Orchestra concert.
On July 27, 1953, the ceasefire agreement to the Korean War was signed by representatives from the United Nations, China and North Korea (South Korea refused to sign it). Remembered by only very few in the United States as National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, the date is all but forgotten in the 15 other nations that under the U.N. banner sent troops to defend South Korea against the North. But, still, the date marks the start of the de facto peace that has held in the peninsula and the contrasting vicissitudes of national fortune for North and South Korea.
North Korea marks the date both in remembrance of the perils of the past and as a resolve to eliminate future threats to regime-preservation by achieving its revolutionary goal of national reunification, which the North Korean Constitution defines as “the supreme national task.” Its false claim that the South, supported by the U.S., started the war and that the North ultimately prevailed over the invaders is not mere propaganda. The narrative undergirds the raison d’etre of the DPRK and its unfinished ultimate task.
Since late July, Kim has taken a significant leap toward this goal — not necessarily with spectacular military exploits but with psychological manipulation through a barrage of 10 additional short-range ballistic missile tests, punctuated by a submarine-launched ballistic missile last week.
These low-level provocations portend greater threats to peace to come. By dialing back the degree of his threat to encompass only the region, while dangling the possibility of peace and reconciliation, Kim has conditioned Seoul and Washington to accept Pyongyang’s smaller threat as a fact of life. To date, President Moon has assiduously avoided commenting on the North’s new, maneuverable, hard-to-detect, nuclear-capable missile tests, while President Trump actively downplayed their threat. Self-censorship, in fear of greater provocations, has been achieved.
Meanwhile, North Korea fast approaches nuclear breakout while the U.S. and South Korea have drastically scaled down military readiness. Next, through more graduated escalation and dramatic de-escalation, North Korea will seek to trick the U.S. to accept its intercontinental ballistic missiles-borne nuclear warheads as fait accompli — a reality the U.S. can live with.
This mind trick stratagem runs in tandem with North Korea’s nuclear strategy. As its threat capabilities grow rapidly, Pyongyang will sue for a disingenuous peace agreement with the U.S. under the guise of living in constant fear of a preemptive U.S. strike. The Trump administration, more than any of its predecessors, appears amenable to such “peace” talks.
A peace deal, as pacifying as it may sound, would immediately strip the United Nations Command, formed in wartime by the U.N. Security Council, of its legitimacy, and call into question the justification for the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea. This would further entrap the risk-averse South as a captive of the revisionist North. And the Kim regime would be well positioned to effect its long-held objectives of “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which Pyongyang defines as U.S. troop withdrawal and dislodgement of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence from the region, including Japan.
An emasculated peace in the Korean peninsula based on fear instead of deterrence may lead to the retrenchment of U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific that further emboldens America’s main adversary, an expansionist China. A major shift in the global balance of power could ensue.
To prevent war, Washington must read its adversary correctly. The North Korean leadership, though backward and bizarre, is not to be underestimated. Even in its early years, Pyongyang exhibited sophistication in the art of deception. Three weeks before its large-scale invasion of the South, Pyongyang proposed to Seoul the creation of a joint parliament with a specific timetable and venues for preparatory meetings and the inauguration of the new inter-Korean political body. On June 19, 1950, just six days before starting the war, Pyongyang again prodded Seoul with a revised plan.
The U.S. must eschew cheap peace and showy summitry. It must stop accommodating Pyongyang’s provocations. It must stop using North Korean lexicon such as “70 years of war and hostility,” which further emboldens Pyongyang and its supporters to paint the U.S. as the culprit. Instead, the U.S. must enforce sanctions against North Korea, levying nine-digit fines on Pyongyang’s accomplices. Only with financial leverage gained should Washington resume negotiations with Pyongyang. True peace and full verification of Pyongyang’s denuclearization can be achieved only with a free and open North Korea.
The alternative means not only failed negotiations, but may spell the beginning of the demise of the Pax Americana in Pacific Asia, punctuated, at long last, by the proclamation of a Korean banns of marriage and a real “Victory Day” for the DPRK.
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 Twitter @SungYoonLee1.
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