The US must not flinch in the face of Kim Jong Un’s missiles mind trick

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a totalitarian state without parallel. In 2014, a United Nations commission, upon a yearlong investigation of North Korea’s crimes against humanity, determined that the “gravity, scale and nature” of its atrocities “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

On nuclear diplomacy, too, the government of North Korea is sui generis. It has reaped billions of dollars worth of blandishments in exchange for repeated lies of amenability to abandoning its nuclear and missile programs. Built on lies, perpetual internal terror, and spasms of external threat, the backward nation nonetheless has defied the odds and outmaneuvered far bigger, richer states in the region — South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States — all the while deliberately starving and enslaving its population as essential means of regime preservation.

{mosads}The combination of the nature of the North Korean regime and its successful record of deception is why Pyongyang’s latest provocations — two separate ballistic missile blasts in the past week — have grave implications. As much as the Trump administration, bent on protecting the illusory diplomatic gains won since the first Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit meeting in June 2018, wishes to downplay them as “non-provocative provocation,” these acts are deliberate attempts at psychological manipulation. They seek to incentivize U.S. policymakers into believing that with minor concessions and artful diplomacy the volatile situation once again can be contained. Hence, on logic and precedents, the missile tests presage more provocations to come, each more ominous than the one before.

The May 4 launch of a newly disclosed solid fuel short-range guided ballistic missile came almost 18 months after North Korea’s emphatic intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on Nov. 29, 2017. Since then, Pyongyang has created a false sense of optimism in Washington merely by refraining from conducting missile or nuclear tests. The November 2017 ICBM test, the third and the most powerful since the U.S. Independence Day test that year, removed all doubt as to Pyongyang’s ability to strike every region of the U.S. homeland. This watershed moment for North Korea was the punctuation mark to nearly six years of calibrated escalation under Kim Jong Un.

Now that Kim has reset the table with another missile test, he is signaling to President Trump: Unless the U.S. complies with his terms of the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” — the withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Korea and in Japan, and ultimately the removal of all U.S. nuclear assets from the region, preceded by sanctions relief, resumption of aid and a peace agreement — more problems are coming. Kim’s follow-up short-range ballistic missile tests on May 9 from Kusung, an identified active missile base approximately 100 km north of Pyongyang, indicates the resumption of his calibrated “missile diplomacy.”

In essence, Kim is reemploying his playbook of graduated escalation, one honed by his father Kim Jong Il during a 17-year reign and, before that, by Pyongyang’s prototype carrot-and-stick playbook perfected over nearly half a century by Kim Il Sung, DPRK founder and grandfather of the current Supreme Kim. Its central tenets are: “Threaten, escalate, create war hysteria, de-escalate and extort. Repeat as necessary.” The odds of success remain high.

{mossecondads}Just as Kim Jong Il in 2009 tested President Barack Obama soon after his inauguration with a long-range missile test on April 5 and a nuclear test on May 25 (Memorial Day that year), Kim Jong Un tried to tame President Trump early in his presidency. Impeccable sense of timing for maximum political impact is a staple of the North Korean game plan.

On Feb. 12, 2017, less than a month after President Trump took office and as the new U.S. leader was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the first time in Mar-a-Lago, Fla., Kim fired his nation’s first known solid fuel short-range ballistic missile. The next day, Kim had his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, assassinated in Kuala Lumpur International Airport with a deadly chemical weapon, thus bolstering his ruthless image.

On May 14, just as Chinese President Xi Jinping was rolling out his nation’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, his defiant client state tested its first-ever intermediate-range ballistic missile. On July 4, North Korea conducted its first-ever ICBM test and rubbed it in with a message from Kim that it was a “gift package” for Americans. All three pathbreaking tests took place at the Kusung base. On July 28, another “gift” was lobbed — a more powerful ICBM, capable of striking most of continental United States, in a test from the north-central Jagang Province, indicating the North Korean military could fire off ICBMs from multiple locations.

North Korea’s pattern of graduated escalation suggests more powerful missile tests and, eventually, an ICBM-borne thermonuclear test on the horizon. Perhaps another provocation

looms this Memorial Day weekend, the 10th anniversary of North Korea’s previous Memorial Day nuclear test. In the face of mounting pressure, the Trump administration should not cave and settle for yet another faulty, expedient and unenforceable deal.

Instead, the United States must resolutely exert financial pressure on Kim by enforcing both U.S. and U.N. sanctions. The recent seizure by the U.S. of the North Korean bulk cargo carrier Wise Honest and the related civil forfeiture complaint are both U.N. sanctions and U.S. domestic law enforcement, not “counter-escalation.” Such should be the stoic stance of the United States. The recent order by a U.S. District judge against three Chinese banks to disclose documents in a U.S. criminal investigation of North Korea sanctions evasion suggests greater financial pressure on the key enablers of North Korea’s global money-laundering schemes.

While these are promising signs, there’s much more the United States could and should do to bankrupt the Kim regime. Furthermore, Congress should vastly increase funding for Voice of America (VOA) Korean language programs instead of slashing in half to a paltry $3.3 million. The uniquely repressive nature of the Kim regime must be revealed constantly to the North Korean people and the world over.

Nothing short of unflinching financial constriction and human rights campaign will compel Kim Jong Un to change. Only growing financial pressure on the North Korean government and growing exposure of the regime’s hideous criminality shall turn the tables on the North Korean dictator. The alternative is negligently to enable Kim to continue to bamboozle the world with graduated escalation and de-escalation, dictating the terms of the dialogue while steadfastly advancing his lethality.

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 elected leaders on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un Missile tests North Korea nuclear weapons

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