What Kim Jong-un’s Latest Threats Say About His Trump Strategy


SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has long threatened to “find a new way” if the United States persists with sanctions. And when North Korea announced his “revolutionary” new way on Wednesday, the strategy revealed both a defiance and a deep caution in confronting President Trump.

Mr. Kim vowed, in a lengthy policy statement, to expand his country’s nuclear force, making vague threats to show off a “new strategic weapon” in the near future​ and “shift to a shocking actual action.” He warned that North Korea would not be bound by a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests.

But he also moderated those threats by leaving out the specifics. Mr. Kim did not explicitly say that he was formally lifting the test moratorium or that he was terminating diplomacy. Instead, he said his efforts to expand his nuclear weapons capabilities could be adjusted “depending on the U.S. future attitude.”

It’s a wait-and-see approach that leaves room for more negotiations.

Analysts say that Mr. Kim is making a calculation against the backdrop of the political uncertainty in the United States, where Mr. Trump faces both a Senate impeachment trial and an election. The North Korean leader, they said, doesn’t necessarily want to rush to strike a deal that could be overturned if Mr. Trump does not win a second term.

“Kim Jong-un continues to hedge his bets,” said Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “I think we’ll see Kim continue to find ways to provoke Washington as a way to gain the upper hand in future nuclear negotiations without directly challenging President Trump.​”

As he waits, Mr. Kim can continue to play the role of tough guy, increasing the stakes in his nuclear brinkmanship. North Korea can expand its nuclear arsenal, produce more bomb fuel, build more nuclear warheads and improve its missile capabilities.

Less predictable is whether or when Mr. Kim might deliver an infuriating message to Mr. Trump by testing a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile.

Such a test could precipitate another “fire and fury” response from Mr. Trump. When Mr. Kim last conducted such tests, in 2017, Mr. Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” inciting fears of possible war.

Tensions eased after North Korea declared a test moratorium in April 2018. And after Mr. Trump met with Mr. Kim in Singapore later that year, the president said the two “fell in love.”

That moratorium remains the best outcome Mr. Trump can cite from his on-and-off diplomacy with Mr. Kim — one that the North Korean leader may be wary of yanking away too soon.

By treading carefully, Pyongyang also avoids more economic pain. Launching a long-range missile would set off another round of United Nations sanctions, and such tests could also provoke China and Russia at a time when Mr. Kim strongly needs their help to blunt the pain of current international measures.

Those sanctions required China, Russia and other countries to send North Korean workers home by late last month, depriving Mr. Kim’s government of a key source of hard currency. North Korea also increasingly depends on Chinese tourists as an alternative source of income, and Mr. Kim has recently built a number of tourist zones to attract them.

In his policy report this week, Mr. Kim acknowledged that his country’s efforts at economic reform faced “grave problems” and were “not making visible progress,” according to the state news media. He also reported “evil practices and stagnation” in key industries and criticized his economic officials for “merely shouting the slogan of self-reliance” while lacking leadership and “responsibility” to revamp the economy.

(The North’s state-run news agency watered down Mr. Kim’s criticism in its English version of the report, indicating that it was mostly for domestic consumption.)

Choe Sang-Hun

2020-01-01 16:28:06

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