It is a safe bet that 2019 will be a crucial year for North Korea. Dictator Kim Jong-un closed out the year by sending South Korean President Moon Jae-in a letter with a “positive” message, an invitation to hold further summit meetings, and a vague commitment from Kim to make his long-promised historic visit to Seoul.
Kim also reportedly sent a New Year’s Eve message to U.S. President Donald Trump. The true state of negotiations with Pyongyang would be difficult to ascertain even if the full text of both messages was made public.
“It has a positive message through which North Korea’s directions and intentions on inter-Korean relations and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as well as Chairman Kim Jong-un’s trip could be read,” President Moon reportedly told South Korean leaders on Monday, referring to a letter from Kim Jong-un he received on Sunday.
That is a rather convoluted description of the missive, and the mystery grew deeper with a statement from the South Korean presidential Blue House that Kim’s letter will not be made fully public because it has some “special meaning” intended for Moon alone. The South Korean presidential office said it sought permission from Pyongyang before disclosing the existence of the letter at all.
This exquisite discretion is probably a consequence of Kim planning a major New Year’s Day address to his nation, a message South Korea’s Yonhap News predicted “will be closely watched by the outside world for any clues as to the North’s policy directions on denuclearization and inter-Korean relations.”
It could be inferred that Kim gave Moon a preview of comments he plans to make during the speech. Whatever these comments are, the Blue House is either sincerely optimistic about their positive nature or furiously hoping Kim has a pleasant surprise in store for the world on Tuesday.
Korean Peninsula analysts at 38 North took a stab at predicting Kim’s speech on Monday, acknowledging the widespread perception that denuclearization talks have stalled out and there has been little visible work on preparations for a new summit between Trump and Kim despite comments from Trump that a meeting could take place as early as February.
A key element of the speech will be the amount of emphasis Kim places on transitioning from military spending and nuclear weapons development to focusing on North Korea’s economy. If Kim puts a strong emphasis on the economy, the thinking goes, it could become harder for him to pursue a course of action that leaves North Korea reeling under the weight of international sanctions and forecloses its much-anticipated economic opening to the outside world.
The question then becomes whether Kim renews his commitment to denuclearization or blames the United States for squandering the diplomatic opening of 2018. 38 North expects the latter:
He might say something like this: Despite the DPRK’s magnanimity and pathbreaking moves to begin denuclearization, and notwithstanding the positive attitude of Trump (perhaps Moon too, but this time Kim may treat him as a junior partner and mainly address the US), regrettably both Washington and Seoul still harbor reactionary hostile forces, determined to sabotage peace and undermine progress. We are watching these malignant elements closely. If they are allowed to run amok unchecked, we may be forced to doubt the sincerity of the dialogue partner and take a corresponding measure. (It’s surprisingly easy to write this stuff.)
Might he name names? The Liberty Korea Party (LKP), South Korea’s conservative main opposition party, may well get an explicit kicking. So might Japan, which North Korean media still regularly excoriate as rudely as until recently they also lambasted the US and South Korea. Then again, Kim could well have hopes of Shinzo Abe joining the queue to talk to him, eventually. He may even pull his punches, leaving the insults to lower-level media.
Safer, ergo likelier, is to dwell on issues rather than personalities. Getting into role again, he may state: However, the US side showed deplorable treachery (or insincerity, a milder word; these are the sort of nuances we should look for) on many fronts: imposing fresh sanctions on our blameless leading officials, kicking up a vile racket at the UN about the non-existent human rights issue, all the while insisting gangster-like that the DPRK unilaterally disarm, and so on.
Kim might be hoping to divide the international coalition against him by insisting North Korea deserves rewards for the (largely illusory and symbolic) gestures it has made so far. He will signal something much less than denuclearization but better than perpetual doomsday brinkmanship is on the table and invite the rest of the world to accept his offer, castigating the intransigent United States for refusing to do so. His big New Year’s surprise could be a fresh symbolic concession, a gesture such as decommissioning another nuclear or ballistic missile facility, to reinforce the narrative that North Korea is taking all sorts of positive steps but the U.S. refuses to budge an inch.
If that is what Kim has in store for Tuesday, it cannot be stressed enough that this juncture was entirely predictable, indeed inevitable. North Korea was always going to try breaking up the coalition and demanding concessions without giving anything in return. 2019 will be a pivotal year not because of unexpected crises or a surprising “stall” in negotiations, but because the entirely predictable end of Phase One in the denuclearization initiative has arrived.
Phase Two begins by demonstrating none of North Korea’s old strategies will work this time: there will be no payoff for anything less than complete and total denuclearization, South Korea will not break away from the international coalition, and Russia and China cannot completely undermine the sanctions regime. None of those points could have been effectively made to North Korea any more quickly than this.
It is worth remembering that President Trump’s critics assume he was folding completely to Kim after their summit in Singapore. Now, the knock on Trump is that he remains too “unpredictable” (as 38 North dings him for being) and negotiations with North Korea have “stalled out.” The people who said Trump gave away too much in June are now predicting Kim Jong-un will score international diplomatic points by condemning the U.S. as harsh and intransigent.
According to South Korean media, Kim used undisclosed methods to send a “letter-like” message to Trump with a “conciliatory” tone on Friday. It is interesting that South Korean and American officials have disclosed no details of this message, nor has President Trump himself, in the past three days. Trump has not said anything about North Korea on Twitter since a message on December 24 that said, “Christmas Eve briefing with my team working on North Korea – progress being made. Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!”
Critics of Trump’s strategy on North Korea keep asserting Kim holds all the cards and has the U.S. and South Korea right where he wants them, as analysts quoted by CNN said on Monday, but so far North Korea has gotten nothing of substance, and the Trump foreign policy team seems unsurprised that Kim has delivered nothing of substance. For all the headline buzz generated by North Korea’s actions in 2018, the year looks like a prelude in retrospect. It is time to discover if President Trump and his team are ready to play the long game that is only just beginning, the game none of his predecessors understood.