A few notes on the story in North Korea, which is the real story at the moment. It’s potentially the biggest opportunity in a generation. Whatever is going on right now, the day when it actually is that opportunity will come. We can hope this is it.
First, to reiterate: The public knows very little about what’s going on in North Korea. Under the traditional circumstances up until the last 18 months or so, the U.S. government didn’t know a whole lot more than the public. Even with the Trump-Kim rapprochement, we can’t congratulate ourselves that our direct visibility into the machinations of the North Korean leadership has expanded that much.
That said, we aren’t without signals to interpret. South Korea, moreover, a U.S. ally and the nation most closely attuned to the North, watches as vigilantly as possible, and shares a great deal with us. South Korea is also as closed-mouthed as necessary for security and strategic latitude. The South Koreans will not be tipping their hand publicly on anything.
As to signals for interpretation, Adam Housley tweeted about a key one on Saturday. The 25th of April is Army Day in Pyongyang, and if the leader is at all able to be propped upright, it is basically unheard-of for him to miss it. Kim Jong-Un missed Army Day, with not even a recorded message being broadcast.
It's called Army Day…and he was a no show…Kim Jon Un missed two massively important North Korea holidays that fuels the fake kingdom. To be a fly on the wall inside the leadership right now.
— Adam Housley (@adamhousley) April 25, 2020
That’s correct. Kim missing the Apr 15 Day of the Sun and the Apr 25 Military Foundation holidays is a BIG deal. It’s akin to a US President missing July 4th and a military academy commencement.
— Bradley Podliska (@BradleyPodliska) April 25, 2020
Kim hasn’t been seen since 11 April. He was missing for a six-week period in 2014, when he reportedly had surgery to remove a cyst on his ankle, and there is still a chance that something similar is going on this time. The speculation in 2014 was not attended by the same categorical reports of his death as in 2020, however.
North Korea isn’t going to announce that he’s dead and then have a succession scuffle. Even if he’s dead at this minute, we won’t be told he’s dead until there’s a plan. For what it’s worth, a Japanese media source is reporting that Kim is said to be in a “vegetative state” at this point. Taking that to mean “not yet declared dead” would be the right interpretation, if the report is tethered to a valid fact.
Japan's Shukan Gendai reports that North Korea's Kim is in a vegetative state.
Reuters reports that China has sent a high level medical delegation to check himhttps://t.co/WTO2NQbLpxhttps://t.co/Gnr358y0qW
— Frida Ghitis (@FridaGhitis) April 25, 2020
China has a delegation in North Korea, as we would expect. All the reporting has emphasized that it includes medical experts. That is probably a distractor. The Chinese delegation is there to work the political angles, with Kim either weakened or no longer functioning.
Working the political succession, in the event of Kim’s demise, would typically include deciding who no longer needs to remain above ground in the North Korean leadership. That’s especially the case given Xi Jinping’s character as a classic Communist dictator.
The Western media are focused on Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong. They even have a somewhat hilariously prevalent talking point going, about North Korea getting a female leader before the U.S. does.
1⃣ Every North Korean leader—male or female—should die in prison.
2⃣ Any US president who exchanges "love letters" with such a leader should face universal censure.
3⃣ The fact that America had a deranged career criminal as POTUS before we had a woman POTUS remains a disgrace.
— Seth Abramson (@🏠) (@SethAbramson) April 26, 2020
All of those items are as close as we can come to basic facts about the situation. But there’s a wild card we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand. It’s the new and unprecedented reality that the Trump administration has had a direct, bilateral relationship with North Korea that does not involve brokerage by China.
China is not the only interested party with the potential to weigh in on North Korea’s course going forward. Trump has established, by making a handful of initial agreements with Kim Jong-Un, that the U.S. has such an interest as well.
This condition has not previously existed in the Korea equation. Granting that we (the public) don’t actually know what’s up with Kim, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that the Trump administration is working the problem on that basis.
We would work it alongside South Korea – and the objective would be to move the Korea problem forward, toward a path of reunification, rather than leaving it stagnant and tethered to the terms of the 67-year-old armistice. (Much would depend on the readiness and courage of the Moon Jae-In government for such an enterprise.)
There are a couple of reasons of overriding importance to push in that direction. One is that reunification has to be the ultimate goal, and the timing has never offered such opportunity, with the spell of China over North Korea’s foreign relations broken, and so much in flux around the globe. We should not miss this opportunity. It could be one of the most transformative moves of a young century.
A key feature of the opportunity is that China’s economic and military circumstances are in no better shape than anyone else’s. China isn’t able to counter U.S.-backed geopolitical momentum for a new direction in Korea with a decisive military move. Nothing China might start would be conclusive quickly, and that’s a significant decision factor for Beijing.
This leads to the second reason to push for a new direction. Xi’s China badly wants to consolidate the status quo on the Korean peninsula, and that’s one of the top reasons to not simply stand by and let it happen. Trump’s bilateral overtures to Pyongyang have rocked Beijing on its heels, and the Trump posture on trade has exacerbated the Chinese regime’s sense of being off balance and under pressure. Now is not the time to passively allow Xi and his cohort to recover their balance.
China could be invited into a negotiating vehicle built around the core of the principals – the Koreas – and Washington. I wouldn’t advocate excluding China; she has a legitimate security stake in the outcome on the peninsula. Presumably, Japan and Russia would want roles as well. The change in dynamic (from the hoary old Six-Party talks) would come from the U.S. having a bilateral line to the North, with no Middle Kingdom as the middleman. That’s no longer impossible.
There’s a media talking point that sister Kim Yo-Jong has played an integral role in dealings with both Seoul and Washington since the bilateral Trump-Kim relationship began. It’s hard to say how genuinely prominent that role has been, apart from her brother’s regime arrangements. But it may figure as a positive factor. It might explain the presence of the Kim train in Wonsan (link above), although it’s early days to crown that development with certainty.
If I were the Trump administration, I’d be doing exactly what Trump has done in the last several days: creating distractions in D.C. (like the throw-away line on Friday about “being sarcastic”), cutting the Friday brief short, and not having a White House brief at all on Saturday.
As usual, the media are divining these out-of-pattern signs to mean Trump is being a big baby about the coronavirus. That works in Trump’s favor: sabotage by a more alert, sensible media of any back-channel efforts that may be underway would be a terrible thing. After a relentless three-year campaign of hostile leaks, both real and fake, the media and their usual-suspect “sources” should have no expectation of being trusted on this matter.
We’ll see. Observers are wise to hold their peace for the time being. But two mental touchstones are essential. One, we don’t know what is happening, but we know what should be happening. The U.S. should be taking advantage of a singular moment to push for a new direction on the Korean peninsula.
And two, the Trump administration has shown that there is, in fact, an alternative to the old path of stagnation, internal rot, and eventual collapse. That’s what the old path was. We don’t have to stay on it.
If the Trump administration has been working this Kim crisis on the basis of strategic initiative, which would be in character for Trump, the communications discipline is admirable.