Kim Jong-un’s self-hypnosisNorth Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has fallen into his own trap. To confirm his position as the successor of the Kim dynasty, he told his people: We have nuclear weapons and missiles. We can turn Seoul into a sea of fire. We can attack the United States’ capital city of Washington with an intercontinental ballistic missile. South Korea and America must recognize us as a nuclear state and accept our demands. We can possess nuclear arms and at the same time revive our economy.For Kim, the image of a “tough guy” is a must, but he has fallen into auto-hypnotism by unwittingly believing in the power of his own bluff.
Contrary to his chest-thumping, South Korea and the United States appeared to be ready to use their state-of-the-art deterrence power to immediately and sternly retaliate against a North Korean provocation. What’s more disturbing for Kim is the out-of-tune attitude of China and Russia. “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in the opening speech last week at the annual Boao Forum for Asia in the southern province of Hainan. Xi is clearly referring to North Korea. The public sentiment in China is also against Kim’s reckless fiddling with nuclear weapons and missiles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also said in Germany that a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula will make the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl look like a “children’s fairy tale.” The radioactive materials leaked from the horrendous disaster completely destroyed the ecosystem around the plant, including the human population in the area.
Kim is now in a quandary. He will lose face from his own people if he does not stage a provocation against South Korea, or the United States, for that matter. But a provocation will no doubt invite retaliation, so he will not want to imagine what will come next. On the other hand, if he attacks Seoul or a U.S. military base with the North’s medium-range ballistic missile in Wonsan city off the east coast, that will be the beginning of the end of the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang — and Kim knows that better than anyone else.
Therefore, Kim will likely fire several missiles into the Pacific Ocean and try to escape from his current dilemma by telling his people that he made Seoul and Washington shiver. And it will probably take place sometime between now and 10 days after the final week of April. The South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises are scheduled to wrap up at the end of this month. If North Korea does not stage a provocation until then, its brinkmanship will lose its momentum for a while. The North also suspended the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, instead of shutting it down completely, leaving room for normalization.
What Kim is waiting for right now is an unambiguous gesture of concession from Seoul and Washington: A face-saving offer, to put it differently. And that’s why Seoul and Washington have come up with the idea of sending an envoy to Pyongyang. In the U.S., some said that an envoy — who can act on behalf of President Barack Obama — should be sent to Pyongyang. And in Seoul, some lawmakers proposed that an envoy be sent to Pyongyang to calm the volatile situation.
At the moment, however, sending an official envoy to Pyongyang is burdensome for all sides. For South Korea, it will be more realistic to send someone deeply trusted by the president to Pyongyang, Beijing or Shenyang as an unofficial envoy. When a small provocation can lead to a massive clash anytime, a secret contact or mediation of a third country is more realistic — particularly at a sensitive moment like this. Sending an informal envoy will most likely work as a rope for Kim to hang on to survive the current quagmire.
It was wise for the United States to check on South Korea’s overreactions while not provoking the North. Washington’s decision to deploy B-2 and B-52 bombers as well as F-22 fighters during the Foal Eagle exercise had two purposes. One was to demonstrate the strong deterrent powers to the North and the other was to reassure the South, while keeping it in check. Seoul and Washington should try to talk to Pyongyang at this point, based on strong physical deterrence and the principle of no tolerance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. When a stronger party holds out its hands to the other side, it’s for reconciliation — different from the case when a weaker party does so. In that case it’s always the stronger party who makes the concession.
North Korea must be aware that the Park Geun-hye administration’s North Korea policy is different from the hard-line policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration. In cooperation with China and Russia, South Korea and America must take advantage of the moment when breathing room is created after the current crisis has eased a bit. Seoul must present to Pyongyang the step-by-step contents of President Park’s trust-building process with the North on the peninsula, while the United States should come up with a detailed road map for peace leading to the normalization of a relationship with the North.
Kim is chasing two rabbits — nuclear arms and the economy — at the same time. The only way to make Kim give up his nuclear ambitions is giving him assurance that the North’s regime will remain safe even without nuclear weapons. The most effective way to persuade Pyongyang is providing it with an imminent vision of normalizing its relationship with Washington. Only long-term and comprehensive measures after the crisis has eased will stop the North from initiating another provocation and make a breakthrough in the decades-old conundrum.