Kim Jong-un needs exit strategyFiguratively speaking, the situation North Korean leader Kim Jong-un faces is a war game with a child using missiles. Although he fired missiles as if they were a water pistol, the adults did not reward his dangerous play by offering him gifts to stop. Actually, the adults withheld the presents they used to give and left him out in the cold. The child had to give up his missile game without receiving a face-saving reward. And he was forced to send his trusted aide to comfort the most generous adult of all. Although another adult, Shinzo Abe, reached out to him, saying, “We should work things out just between us,” and he didn’t hesitate to hold Abe’s hand, other adults still gave him the cold shoulder. So Kim had no other choice.
He sent Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae — director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean People’s Army and his closest confidant — to Beijing as a special envoy. Over the past five months, North Korea went ahead with long-range rocket launches and a third nuclear test despite China’s strong opposition, not to mention the near-daily war threats to South Korea and China. Amid Kim’s unceasing belligerence, China — known as North Korea’s staunch guardian — has lost face. Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials in Beijing warned Pyongyang sternly that China would not allow the North to make trouble at the threshold of its territory. The Bank of China cut its business with the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea — the communist country’s main foreign exchange bank — and the Chinese authorities largely strengthened the customs clearance process for China’s exports to the North in pursuant to the most recent United Nations sanctions.
It wasn’t Kim’s initial intention to stage armed provocation; His goal instead was to secure his image as a strong leader at home and abroad and solidify his power, while ratcheting up the crisis as high as possible with verbal threats to have a direct negotiation with the United States. But Washington responded with a show of force. Concerned about China’s rapid rise in Asia and the Pacific, the United States took the opportunity of the North’s war threats to deploy its state-of-art, strategic bombers such as B-2s and B-52s in the South Korea-U.S. joint military drill. With this move, Washington demonstrated to Seoul its undiminished deterrent power, thwarted the North’s will to stage provocations and showed off the U.S. military in the region to China — all at the same time. The U.S. deployment of a nuclear submarine to the East Sea was Pyongyang’s biggest nightmare. America sent a clear message to Kim and the military leadership of the North that another conflict on the Korean Peninsula would lead to a deadly crisis of the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang.
The Park Geun-hye administration also didn’t budge an inch despite Pyongyang’s declaration to scrap the armistice agreement and shut down the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Kim was expecting some specific face-saving measures from Seoul and Washington, but he was only given the message that the door for dialogue remains open. During Park’s visit to the United States earlier this month, Seoul and Washington reaffirmed their strong commitment to the South Korea-U.S. alliance and sent strong messages to the North, foiling Kim’s expectations. After firing six missiles into the East Sea, Kim could not hold out any longer and had to fold his adventurous war game. In the meantime, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deviated from the South Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation in their North Korea policies and separately sent an envoy to Pyongyang. That was the only pleasant surprise for Kim amid his isolation.
Kim made a highly calculated move of sending Choe as his special envoy to China accompanied by the chief of North Korean Army’s General Staff Operations Bureau and other senior generals. By giving the special mission to Choe, who had initiated the current crisis, Kim appeared to have given him a highly calculated message: “You must go to China and say that the crisis is now over, and we are willing to accept a dialogue.”
Ahead of the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi on June 7 and 8, Kim needed to explain his position. The U.S.-China summit — along with the early May’s Park-Obama summit — is the key link in a series of meetings among the leaders of Seoul, Washington and Beijing. If the crisis goes on, the continuing series of the summits may produce an outcome unfavorable to Pyongyang. The uneasiness of Kim seems to have been the direct motive behind sending his special envoy to Beijing.
It is promising that Kim’s envoy went to China between the two summits. It would be the most desirable for Kim to visit China early after Choe’s visit to Beijing. The crisis has clearly subsided, and China believes keeping the status quo on the peninsula is the best order. That was why Beijing actually cooperated with the international sanctions on the North this time.
The real problem begins from now. The road to resolving the North Korea issues, including its nuclear and missile programs and establishing peace on the peninsula, is long and rough. China will want to resume the six-party talks. But future six-party talks cannot be the same as past discussions, as the North’s nuclear arms and missiles are just a moment away from operational deployment. What’s the solution now? South Korea should take the lead in forging a specific agenda, together with aggressive efforts to resume inter-Korean talks. Without dialogue, President Park’s trust-building process cannot get under way. A talk to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex could be the beginning.