Argument

Trump Is More Vulnerable Than Ever to Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Extortion

Trump’s growing impulsiveness and unilateral decision-making may signal to Kim that he can get precisely what he wants.

U.S. President Donald Trump Meets North Korean leader Kim Jung Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea on June 30. Handout/Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images

North Korea’s next attempt to pressure the United States to bend to Pyongyang’s will starts with a vague threat.

Perhaps the threat is published in regime media or uttered by a more authoritative regime official. Or maybe it’s from Kim Jong Un himself. No one knows what to make of it, but it sparks an onslaught of speculation in the media and from pundits about what terrible things could happen. 

Later, the threat takes more shape. But it is conditional on Washington’s next moves, thus preemptively putting the blame on the United States for whatever provocative action North Korea might ultimately take in retaliation. 

Then North Korea agrees to talk after punting multiple opportunities for diplomacy. It uses the time before the talks to show the regime’s advanced weapons capabilities—but at the meeting their officials, who are mouthpieces rather than empowered policy formulators, walk out in a huff. As they walk away, they lob insults at their U.S. counterparts and hurl new threats, expertly escalating tension but leaving enough space for a more contrite Washington, appropriately tenderized by domestic criticism and entreaties from allies, to come back with a new offer more palatable to Pyongyang. 

This worrying outcome is looking more and more likely, after the rapid disintegration of long-anticipated working-level nuclear talks early last month and the North’s chief negotiator’s comment about a potential return to nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing. So far, U.S. President Donald Trump—who has touted his “chemistry” with Kim, traded “love letters” with the young dictator, and shielded him from international condemnations for his weapons demonstrations and gross human rights violations—has been largely spared from the regime’s shenanigans. But he shouldn’t count on it.

Kim has his sights on Trump and is angling for another summit to possibly deliver a direct threat to Trump’s narrative of success. Diplomacy between Kim and Trump has yet to deliver concrete results on denuclearization, but it has also exposed the president to nuclear extortion, a skill the Kim family dynasty has perfected over the decades. 

By personalizing the North Korea nuclear issue and brushing aside the regime’s testing of shorter-range missiles in recent months, saying they did not violate his personal agreement with Kim (although they are in contravention of U.N. resolutions), Trump has inadvertently backed himself into a corner. The president dismissed the slew of short-range ballistic missiles as being “very standard” and “not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement.” But by hawking his triumph in convincing Kim to refrain from nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing, Trump has provided Kim with a bull’s-eye focus on a perceived vulnerability. 

Trump’s growing impulsiveness and unilateral decision-making, which have intensified in recent weeks amid the growing stress of the impeachment probe, probably give Kim hope that once he gets Trump in the room again, he can cajole the president to give him what he wants, regardless of stated U.S. policy. 

He need not look too hard—or too far—for examples of how he could maneuver the president. Kim is almost certainly buoyed by Trump’s recent decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey, despite bipartisan denunciation from national security experts, including from his most ardent supporters in Congress. Trump said: “It’s their neighborhood. They have to maintain it.” The Turkey episode reverberated uncomfortably through the crowd of Asia watchers who have been concerned over the past three years about a similar scenario in which the United States abandons its allies in the region. For Kim, this serves as a data point proving that he has an opportunity to take advantage of Trump’s personality and preferences. 

Kim has been building up his coercive diplomacy for months. In his annual New Year’s address in January, he touted his foreign-policy accomplishments in the previous year, including his first-ever summit with Trump in June 2018. But he warned that if Washington “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way,” hinting that he was not going to back down easily. 

After the abbreviated Hanoi summit in February failed to yield the removal of sanctions, a senior North Korean official announced at a hastily arranged press conference that Kim “had lost the will to engage in deal-making.” A month later, the same official condemned the “gangster-like stand of the United States” and warned that Kim might rethink his moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing, reiterating the North Korean leader’s mysterious warning from January but putting more meat to the threat by highlighting that the North is willing to put in jeopardy what Trump has touted as his Nobel Peace Prize-worthy foreign-policy accomplishment. 

And in April, Kim said he would give Washington until the end of the year to “quit its current calculation method and approach us with a new one” or risk the rupturing of diplomacy, putting a time frame and amplifying the costs the regime was willing to impose on Washington. To rekindle Kim’s interest in deal-making and to preserve Trump’s success, the president then scrambled to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas to “say hello” and to jump-start stalled nuclear talks.

Kim seems willing to play along with Trump’s narcissistic narrative, weaponizing flattery and his personal relationship with the president. He has been satisfying Trump’s desire for theater, posing with Trump at the DMZ and embracing the media spotlight. While the regime has excoriated Trump’s advisors, it has held back on any criticism of the president. Instead, Kim has sent what Trump called a “beautiful letter” on the one-year anniversary of the Singapore summit and another in early August. 

The latter, which was three pages long, offered what Trump said was a “small apology” from Kim for the short-range ballistic missile tests and that he would stop these launches once the U.S.-South Korea military exercises ended that month. Trump that day reiterated his own antipathy for the joint exercises, stating, “I’ve never been a fan. You know why? I don’t like paying for it. We should be reimbursed for it, and I’ve told that to South Korea,” suggesting the success of Kim’s appeal to Trump’s fixation with cost sharing and his inherent suspicion of the utility of alliances. 

Trump has been largely good for Pyongyang. Kim has been able to burnish his international and domestic credentials as a leader on par with those of much more powerful, wealthier countries. He was able to convince Washington and Seoul to cancel and scale back planned military exercises while renovating ties with Beijing and Moscow and marginalizing key U.S. allies. However, Kim hasn’t been able to get Washington to budge on sanctions, and Trump, to his credit, has been mostly disciplined in not making unilateral decisions on Washington’s most significant leverage. 

But this relative calm in recent months can all be overturned if Kim, possibly feeling the pain of the North’s contracting economy and the possibility that Trump’s time in the Oval Office is nearing its end, decides to up the stakes. Regime media statements in recent weeks suggest that Kim is eager to get another audience with Trump and hint at some urgency. A senior North Korean official late last month reiterated the year-end deadline for a change in U.S. policy and said he hoped the “special” relationship between Trump and Kim would create a “motive force” to advance ties in a new direction. The regime’s testing of short-range ballistic missiles on Oct. 31—its 12th test since May—is the latest action toward building pressure.

In the United States, recent reports have been saturated with examples of nervous White House officials trying to contain Trump’s recklessness, worried, as the Washington Post described it, “that Trump would make promises he shouldn’t keep, endorse policies the United States long opposed, commit a diplomatic blunder that jeopardized a critical alliance, or simply pressure a counterpart for a personal favor.” 

Not to be ignored for too long by the White House, North Korea can start making moves to get the president’s attention. It can do so with little cost and maximum effect while preserving the ambiguity of its actions, thus muting international retaliation. 

For example, the North’s main nuclear test site at Punggye-ri has been shut down, but analysis of satellite imagery suggests the regime is continuing to maintain it for future use. The regime can make observable changes there—mysteriously moving vehicles, erecting canopies as if to hide something, increasing personnel busily doing something, digging tunnels—and other signs that would be consistent with, if not diagnostic of, preparations for a nuclear test. Such activity undoubtedly would ring alarm bells, and as the end of the year approaches, the connection between North Korea’s threats in 2019 and the activity at the test site would set off an avalanche of media coverage and speculation. Already inclined to have another summit with Kim, Trump would be likely to heed the inevitable exhortations by Chinese and South Korean leaders to engage directly with Kim. 

Once a fourth Trump-Kim meeting takes place, Kim could suggest—as he did in his letter apologizing for the short-range ballistic missile tests—that he has no choice but to resume nuclear and ICBM testing. In this scenario, he can cite the lack of progress by the United States on providing the North with “security guarantees”—a boundless list of demands that North Korea can put on the table to delay and deflect the focus away from denuclearization toward a discussion of nonnuclear issues that would only benefit the regime. 

To preserve his claimed foreign-policy success—no nuclear testing and no long-range missile testing—Trump could conceivably offer movement toward a removal of some U.S. troops and an end to exercises with South Korea (after all, the president has never really liked either of these situations) and even the near-certain death throes of the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. Trump could brandish Kim’s renewed promise as a victory for the United States, unilaterally (though symbolically) declare the end of the Korean War, and tell the South Koreans and Japan that this is “their neighborhood” and they will have to deal with North Korea’s shorter-range—but more reliable—missile systems that threaten regional stability. 

Kim has a history of brinkmanship and has yet to face a major catastrophe that might dampen his confidence. As the events of 2017 have shown, Kim is not afraid to confront Trump. But while he did so with insults and bluster then, he can do so now promising friendship and mutual interests.

Jung H. Pak is a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. Prior to Brookings, she held senior positions at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Twitter: @junghpak1

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