'Rocket Man' and 'The Dotard,' redux

'Rocket Man' and 'The Dotard,' redux
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North Korea is back to doing what it does best. Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTired of worrying about the pandemic? There's always Pyongyang Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed North Korea: 'Reckless remarks' by Pompeo show US doesn't want nuclear talks MORE has been threatening to send the United States a “Christmas gift,” and sure enough, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that a “very important test took place at the Sohae Satellite launching Ground” on Dec. 7, one that it predicted will “change the strategic position of North Korea in the near future.” Earlier that day, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said denuclearization is off the table, noting: “We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now.” 

All this after North Korea tested short-range missiles on Nov. 28 and was condemned for it. The change in posture was signaled by the North Korean ambassador’s response: “These six EU member states are making much trouble to play the role of pet dog of the United States in recent months. One cannot (help) but wonder, what do they get in return for currying favor with the United States?”

In fact, trouble has been brewing for some time. U.S.-North Korean talks have been stuck in a rut. President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE had downplayed North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests. And after previously touting his special relationship with Kim, Trump once again referred to Kim as “Rocket Man” in remarks at the NATO summit in London. North Korea responded in kind: “If any language and expressions stoking the atmosphere of confrontation are used once again on purpose at a crucial moment as now, that must really be diagnosed as the relapse of the dotage of a dotard.” 

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Notably, North Korea also called former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenSome Sanders top allies have urged him to withdraw from 2020 race: report Sunday shows preview: As coronavirus spreads in the U.S., officials from each sector of public life weigh in Trump defends firing of intel watchdog, calling him a 'disgrace' MORE a “rabid dog” which “must be beaten to death with a stick, before it is too late” just last month.

Is the fact that name-calling has resumed evidence that Trump’s summits with Kim were foolish? To be clear, a breakthrough from engaging with North Korea always was a phantasm. As I wrote at the time of the initial hype, as long as Trump’s standard was denuclearization, the talks were doomed. That has now been confirmed by North Korea’s U.N. ambassador. Indeed, Kim’s unwillingness to give up his nuclear weapons has been as obvious as Mount Paektu on a clear day: willful blindness won’t make it go away.

North Korea’s nuclear deterrent truly is not aimed at an external threat to the country, unlike other recent nuclear states such as Pakistan, India and Israel. The North Korean regime knows that its greatest risk comes from within — its own people may be tempted to rebel and overthrow the yoke of oppression if they can. And such a rebellion’s success would depend on external support, most likely supplied by the U.S. to protect human rights and prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians if the regime cracked down on grassroots protesters with force. 

In such a scenario, Kim has calculated that a nuclear deterrence is essential to keep the United States from getting involved in his country’s domestic politics. Kim’s calculation is that internal enemies can be kept under a chokehold as long as they know that any rebellion is likely to be bereft of foreign support. On their own, they would have no chance against such a ruthless regime. 

Essentially, Kim is maintaining a balance of terror — his people may hate the regime, but they have no means to overthrow it and escape. Hence, the Kim dynasty endures despite presiding over a population that is desperately poor and subject to the most inhumane conditions.

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Given that reality, Kim has no incentive to surrender nuclear deterrence; that would telegraph the end of his regime. Kim has been transparent about this from the beginning and his Singapore summit declaration with Trump merely reaffirms the “April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration …[and] commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” These words were vague and meaningless, committing North Korea to nothing of substance. 

To be sure, Trump likely knows all this. As a master salesman, his plan may have been to engage Kim in a slow dance to allow North Korea’s internal audiences the opportunity to imagine what’s possible and plant the seeds of regime change. Coevally, Trump’s plan may be for Kim to see the internal risks and facilitate a slow opening up of the country while maintaining control with U.S. blessing.  

Unfortunately, there are other countries with their own strategic interests in this drama and results have not eventuated. Nonetheless, the remarkable de-escalation in language and posture until this weekend’s flare-up has been worth the price — the U.S. has held firm and not made any concessions, and there have been other small rewards. For the present, a stalemate between the “Rocket Man” and “the Dotard” is preferable to a military conflict. 

Like the millions of Americans who receive unwanted gifts this Christmas season, Trump should just reuse, recycle or donate Kim’s gift. And keep doing what he does best: talking.

Sandeep Gopalan (@DrSGopalan) is vice chancellor and executive vice president of academic affairs at Piedmont International University in North Carolina. He previously was a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He has co-chaired American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, was a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and was dean of law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries.