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Is Donald Trump's North Korea strategy working?

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year's Day speech ...

Posted: Jan 5, 2018 5:45 PM
Updated: Jan 5, 2018 5:45 PM

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year's Day speech that he was prepared to "melt the frozen north-south relations," to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been "firm, strong and willing to commit our total 'might' against the North."

He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

Pyongyang's anxieties are evident from Kim Jong Un's speech, most of which focused on the economy. Agriculture and fisheries, he said, "need an upswing," while light industry should save electricity and also produce more goods with local materials. This means that supplies of food, power and imported raw materials are all problematic.

So, to the extent that these problems are due to US-inspired sanctions (they were also caused by a severe drought last year and by the inefficiencies of North Korea's unreformed economy), President Trump has a point.

But President Trump's unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang's decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump's talk of military action.

So, Pyongyang probably hopes not only to ease its economic problems by persuading South Korea to slacken its implementation of sanctions (South Korea's seizure last month of two vessels caught illegally transhipping oil to North Korean vessels will have alarmed Pyongyang) and perhaps to give it some direct economic assistance, but also by warming relations with a key US ally to reduce the risk of a surprise US strike on its facilities.

But that does not explain the timing of the North Korean announcement. Its change in tone was sudden. The North Koreans gave Feltman no reason to think that they were open to talks with anyone, and as late as December 30, North Korea's state media published a fiery policy document warning the US does "not expect any change in (the DPRK's) policy." Two days later, Kim Jong Un did just that. Why?

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December, probably to say that North Korea would take part in the Olympics if the postponement was confirmed (which, following a conversation between President Moon and President Trump, it now has been). But there is more than this. Kim Jong Un warned South Korea against "joining the United States in its reckless moves for a north-targeted nuclear war." When the two sides meet on January 9, it is likely that the North will press the South to take a more independent line in an effort to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, a major North Korean strategic objective.

So, the talks will be delicate. To give the North Koreans too little would risk the door slamming shut again, but to give them too much could undermine the sanctions regime that remains the single best hope for persuading Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programs. But if (a big if) all goes well, they might just lead to wider talks. Kim Jong Un's speech was surprisingly gentle on the United States. He used no language stronger than the colorful reference to his nuclear button -- mild by North Korean standards -- and sanctions were not even mentioned. (His speech was much shorter than usual. Were condemnations of the United States cut at the last minute?).

Is he signaling that, if talks with the South go well, he just might talk with the United States, too? And if so, will he pause his nuclear and missile tests?

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