Amid hopeful signs that North Korea is backing away from its threat to launch missiles at Guam, one piece of data from the impenetrable communist state remains troubling: Dictator Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for about two weeks.
Fox News notes that Kim’s last disappearance occurred before the July ICBM launch that provoked the current crisis, and lasted for roughly the same span of two weeks. Taken with signs of activity at a North Korean submarine base, his current low profile could indicate Kim is planning a dramatic reappearance to coincide with some new act of mischief—or, in the most alarming interpretation of his disappearance, he is hiding in a bunker somewhere because he is about to do something that might provoke a U.S. military response.
The Fox News report eases these concerns by noting that Kim has also vanished from the public eye because of poor health or general paranoia.
Of course, North Korea announced its decision to hold its fire on Guam with the usual bluster, and portrayed it as mighty Pyongyang choosing to give the “foolish Yankees” a little more time to ponder their own actions. North Korean media described Kim as reviewing his Guam attack plan with military commanders in “real earnest” before deciding to sit back and wait for America’s next move.
CNN notes the move Kim will watch most closely, from wherever he is hiding, will be the annual U.S.-South Korean military drill scheduled to begin on August 21. North Korea perpetually complains about these drills as either dress rehearsals for an invasion, or possibly a surprise attack disguised as a mere military drill. China’s proposal for easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula involves the United States and South Korea abandoning joint military drills to placate Pyongyang, in exchange for which North Korea would ramp its nuclear missile program down.
North Korea’s KCNA news service actually referred to the August 21 military drill as a possible sign that the United States is “going more reckless,” which would lead to a “most delightful historical moment when the Hwasong artillerymen will wring the windpipes of the Yankees and point daggers at their necks.” Hwasong is the designation for the missiles North Korea has been threatening to launch at Guam.
True to form, the Chinese communist Global Times chimed in to warn that South Korea should cancel the drills if President Moon Jae-in is serious about wishing to avoid war on the peninsula.
“From August 21 to 31, the US and South Korea will hold another joint military exercise called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response. If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise. But the South Koreans can hardly get rid of US control, both in mind and deed,” the Global Times lectured, sounding awfully antagonistic for the mouthpiece of a country that supposedly supports international efforts to keep nuclear ICBMs away from Kim Jong-un.
The Global Times repeats the Chinese mantra that Beijing has “no deciding leverage” with North Korea, and calls upon South Korea to “refuse to cooperate with Washington in launching military action against Pyongyang,” by which it means the upcoming annual exercise.
Of course, the editors also toss in a complaint about the THAAD anti-missile system, which is the root cause of all tension on the Korean Peninsula in China’s imagination. South Korea is criticized for conspiring with the U.S. to “jeopardize China’s interests” by deploying THAAD, which can inconveniently monitor activity on Chinese turf.
China seems very determined to make some lemonade out of Kim Jong-un’s lemons by using the current crisis to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. For their part, the South Koreans are eager to assert their own authority, with President Moon stating on Tuesday that America is bound by treaty to consult with Seoul before taking any action against North Korea.
China might be the real audience for both Moon and Kim’s declarations, and for the op-ed on America’s new policy of “strategic accountability” penned by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday. Everyone seems to be busy drawing their bottom lines for China, which remains stubbornly attached to strategic goals that coincide with some of North Korea’s most insistent demands. The American bottom line is the refusal to tolerate further nuclear blackmail by North Korea.
Jake Novak at CNBC scores the last few moves of the great game as “a major win for the Trump team,” because China is enforcing tough new U.N. sanctions against North Korea and took the unprecedented step of publicly informing Kim Jong-un that it would not protect him if he starts a shooting war with the United States. America, on the other hand, has merely conceded that it will not push for regime change—a long shot at best—and scaled back on the “fire and fury” rhetoric employed by President Donald Trump.
“If these sanctions hold and North Korea simply halts its ICBM launch tests, what many saw as some kind of massive fumble by the Trump team could easily turn into the administration’s biggest triumph of the year,” Novak ventures, speculating that Trump and Tillerson’s good-cop, bad-cop routine might have worked to change China’s posture.
Perhaps even more substantial than hot and cold rhetoric is the fact that both China and North Korea want to reduce the American military presence in East Asia, but as Novak points out, North Korean provocations have prompted an increased presence, from THAAD deployment to B-1B bomber flights.
It should be obvious to China by now that the United States, under the current or any future administrations, is unlikely to draw down if Pyongyang brandishes nuclear missiles and makes incessant demands.
Until now, China has profited by selling itself as the only effective protection against its mad-dog client in Pyongyang, using the North Korean menace to push for policy concessions Beijing desires from the U.S. and its regional allies. If the rules of that game really have changed, and the Trump administration has convinced China it stands to lose more than it gains by playing the same old cards, real progress might be made at last. The U.S. is taking a calculated risk that Beijing’s threshold of economic and strategic pain is much lower than Pyongyang’s. Perhaps Kim Jong-un is off somewhere privately meditating on that new reality.