Zumwalt: North Korea’s Change in Attitude a Sign China Is Calling the Shots

Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) in the Chinese city of Dalian earlier in May
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

Lyrics from an old Jimmy Buffett song suggest “changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same…”

Ironically, the lyrics are appropriate to the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization. Recently, after his second meeting in Beijing, we witnessed dictator-for-life Kim Jong Un undergo a change in attitude. The reason may be due to a shift in latitudes as to where the decision-making is now taking place: from solely being made by Kim in Pyongyang to now being made by president-for-life Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Xi undoubtedly is imposing China’s national security interests upon Kim, which means preserving a divided Korean peninsula.

As a result, what is taking place now is a chess match, primarily between the U.S. and China and secondarily between North and South Korea. President Donald Trump’s announcement Thursday he is canceling his meeting with Kim who, earlier, had threatened to pull out of the “one-sided” summit, represents just the most recent move and counter-move in a that chess game — one having very high stakes in whether it is a nuclearized or denuclearized North Korea that survives.

It became quite obvious following the second Beijing meeting that a different Kim emerged from it than from the first meeting — as President Donald Trump has noted. Interestingly, over the past several years, China’s control over North Korea appeared waning, especially after Kim executed North Koreans with close ties to China. This included his uncle along with his half-brother — the latter while transiting through Malaysia — for fear Beijing was facilitating a coup against him to install his half-brother.

The fact that Kim, during a seven-year rule, made no official visits to China and then, suddenly, made two within a two-month period suggests China is reasserting control. Two quick trips also suggest Beijing is doing it in a way Kim understands: as an order, not a request. If so, Xi clearly wants the parameters of any deal with Trump to incorporate China’s national security interests as well.

There should be no doubt such national security interests require the Korean peninsula to remain divided. The last thing Xi wants is a united Korean democracy, allied with the U.S., on his border. The need for a second meeting with Kim may have been triggered as Xi saw an opportunity to use North Korea as a wedge in the U.S./South Korea alliance. This necessitated Kim returning to his obstinate ways and not being so accommodating to Trump’s denuclearization demand.

When a scaled-back U.S./ROK pre-planned military training “Max Thunder” exercise went ahead as scheduled on May 11th, Kim had an opening. Making another chessboard move, he canceled an upcoming meeting between North and South Korean high-ranking officials, threatening to do the same concerning his June 12th meeting in Singapore with Trump.

This was most disconcerting for South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his inner circle of long-time peace activist advisors. Their approach to peace with North Korea mirrors one taken eight decades earlier by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to secure a fleeting peace with Nazi Germany.

Moon’s ride to his nation’s top office — along with those in his circle who rode his coattails — came at a price he had no hesitancy to pay, promoting an anti-US agenda.

Thus, Xi sees President Moon as a pawn to use in the chess match with Trump. While that pawn may line up on Trump’s side of the board, it does not necessarily align with him ideologically.

If Trump was unaware he had a-less-than-fully committed Moon on his side, he undoubtedly got a taste for it after the South Korean president made a quick trip to meet him in Washington as the U.S./North Korea summit meeting was hanging in limbo.

It is suspected Moon used his face time with Trump to underscore the diplomatic importance of Trump meeting with Kim. Moon also may well have suggested the advice of National Security Advisor John Bolton — whom a South Korean official has described as “very dangerous”—be downplayed. But Bolton is a critical player in dealing with the denuclearization issue as he well understands North Korea plays chess with its own set of rules.

It would appear, South Korea was blindsided by Trump’s canceling the Kim summit based on its statement, “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.” But clearly this is devastating news to “peace at any price” Moon.

Peace activists undoubtedly will criticize Trump’s announcement for coming only hours after Pyongyang demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, claiming it wants to achieve peace.

But, for North Korea, the Punggye-ri demolition comes at a price similar to that being paid by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s promise not to accept NRA donations. Indications are the Punggye-ri site suffered a major tunnel collapse during the last test, thus losing its functionality. And, since Warren has never received any NRA donations, the two respective actions are taken at a net zero cost to either party.

Again, this is all part of how North Korea plays chess, giving the appearance it is acting to secure peace but, in reality, sacrificing nothing to do so. It is a Kim family strategy that Bolton understands very well. He undoubtedly recognizes the demolition of Punggye-ri still leaves the North with no real skin in the denuclearization game.

Both China and North Korea had high comfort levels when President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” policy towards Pyongyang was the order of the day. They recognized strategic patience to be synonymous with “do nothing.” Trump’s chessboard moves have now left Xi and Kim uneasy. They most likely see his refusal to meet Pyongyang’s pre-summit demands for U.S. troops to withdraw from South Korea and to cancel the Max Thunder exercise, as well as his failure to buckle under after Kim’s nuclear threats, as a U.S. leader who will not be intimidated. This may be having its intended impact as the North Korean response to the summit cancelation has been very subdued, appealing that it is “open to resolving problems at any time in any way.”

There has been no change in latitude in the location of the Oval Office in Washington, DC, but there has been an obvious change in attitude of its new resident president. This is creating a very unpleasant experience for China and North Korea but a most pleasant one for the U.S.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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