Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: Is Kim Jong-un Gearing Up for The Mother of All October Surprises?

The recent period has seen a flurry of activity related to North Korea’s nuclear programme and détente on the Korean peninsula, but despite everything the situation remains in a state of deadlock and instability. We’ve seen President Moon meet with President Trump in Washington, an artillery duel like exchange of barbs between Pyongyang and Washington on denuclearisation, a sequential series of high level party and legislative meetings in North Korea, a North Korean “tactical guided” weapons test, the usual fare of satellite imagery mania, and a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok.

North Korea remains committed to its reciprocal step-by-step conception of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, not to be confused with disarmament, and for its part the United States remains committed to wholesale North Korean dismantlement of its nuclear programme (but including also chemicals and biologicals) before all else the so called “Libya model.” Washington has adhered to this position consistently since 2012, bar for a brief period at and following the Singapore summit. The position is not so much a denuclearisation position as it is a policy of regime change through dint of graduated strangulation and “strategic patience.”

An extended meeting of the Politburo of the Korean Workers Party began the series of meetings in North Korea, which was quickly followed by the 4th plenary session of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers Party. This plenary session was much anticipated as it was the 3rd plenary session that adopted the prevailing policy of solely concentrating on economic development in place of the previous policy of simultaneously pursuing economic development and completing the state nuclear force, which was adopted in a March 2013 Central Committee plenum.  The 3rd plenum in 2018 was an important step on the road to Singapore, so the 4th not long after the fizzle at Hanoi promised a glimpse into the alternative policy that Kim obliquely hinted at during his 2019 new year address should diplomacy fail.

The policy adopted at the 3rd plenum has not changed. In his closing address to the 4th plenum Kim Jong-un was reported by KCNA as saying that “the building of an economic power is raised as the main political task.” Both the opening and closing addresses of Kim emphasised that this was to be achieved under the rubric of self-reliant socialist construction, a recurrent theme of North Korean commentary and propaganda not without relevance given Trump’s promise of prosperity via US benevolence. The 14th meeting of the Supreme Peoples Assembly, the North Korean legislature, reelected Kim Jong-un as Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, which was followed by a speedy letter of congratulation from China’s Xi Jinping. Like lips and teeth.

These meetings resulted in a significant shuffling of cadres, with three points of emphasis dominating commentary and analysis. The meetings were regarded, firstly, as a further consolidation of Kim’s power, secondly a step back for economic reform, and thirdly Kim’s elevation as the “representative of the Korean people” by the SPA was considered a slap in the face for President Moon of South Korea. The first was surely a factor, and it demonstrates the degree to which Kim has, in part, adroitly used nuclear weapons development and the associated diplomacy to shore up his domestic position. In that sense he has out Trumped Trump.

I’m not so sure about the second contention. The main item of evidence is the reshuffling of Pak Pong-ju as Premier but that makes the error of associating a policy line with a single cadre. I tend to think that these meetings, in and of themselves, are a type of reform. For many years, certainly during the rule of Kim Jong-il, the party and high state organs met haphazardly. The style of rule was highly personal, much like Stalin who didn’t bother himself too unduly with these things. Boozy late night Kremlin get togethers with his Stalinist cronies was more his thing. The sequential, and thus far regular, meetings of the Central Committee and the Supreme People’s Assembly since the 7th Congress are a type of reform that might bear fruit in future. I had emphasised this point myself in several commentaries here last year, arguing that an assertion of the party is reform in the North Korean context. That assertion was a theme of a previous meeting of party cells and it was a theme of the April meeting of the Politburo. The best analysis on the third aspect, I suggest, is due to Aidan Foster-Carter who emphasises that this is more a natural follow on from Kim’s no longer representing a single constituency in the Assembly, itself a return to formal procedure.  Politics is a funny game, and you never know in human affairs how things may transpire. Maybe we’ll see the day when the Kim dynasty is dismissed by the KWP as “an anti-party group.” If so, we’ll look back on this period as being significant. Thus far the supreme ideology of the land remains Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism with Kim Jong-un not having, at least not yet, his own thought like Xi Jinping to the north. We might, rather, get reform when we do see Kimjongunism or, then again, it may never happen. Like I say, human affairs are impossible to predict.

Ordinarily one does not see the significant internal reform of a state when faced by acute external pressure, as North Korea faces, however nuclear weapons can change that equation. Gorbachev began his reforms during the height of Cold War Two, but the Soviet Union was in possession of a nuclear deterrent as was China when it began its reform programme. A nuclear deterrent might provide a shield behind which a state could pursue internal reform despite external hostility.

The exchange of barbs with Washington and the Kim-Putin Vladivostok summit have firmly entrenched Pyongyang’s near term approach to denuclearisation diplomacy with the United States.  North Korea will not engage in a third summit with Washington unless the White House shifts from its Libya model approach or CVID (complete, verified, irreversible, dismantlement). Pyongyang has made it clear that it will wait out the current impasse for a year before adopting a different strategic approach. What that approach might consist of is not clear but in a KCNA commentary on the Kim-Putin summit it was stated

“Kim Jong Un said that the situation on the Korean peninsula and the region is now at a standstill and has reached a critical point where it may return to its original state as the U.S. took a unilateral attitude in bad faith at the recent second DPRK-U.S. summit talks, and added that peace and security on the Korean peninsula will entirely depend on the U.S. future attitude, and the DPRK will gird itself for every possible situation.”

Note the formulation of a return to the “original state,” likely a reference to the 2017 standoff what Scott Sagan referred to as “the Korean missile crisis.” Pyongyang has stated that it will wait for the US to change its “attitude” to the talks, that is to accept its reciprocal step-by-step formulation. North Korea is saying that it will wait a year for Washington to blink. In a year’s time, of course, the 5th plenum of the current Central Committee will meet. There are two issues I’d like to broach here. Firstly, why a year precisely? Secondly, what are the chances of Washington blinking?

I have previously argued that Trump’s inflated rhetoric, adopted for domestic political effect especially prior to the November 2018 midterm elections, has given Kim Jong-un leverage. Central to that rhetoric has been the recent absence of North Korean missile and nuclear testing, and so long as the North does not engage in strategic weapons testing Trump can claim he has brought peace in our time (even though it was his absurdist rhetoric that helped push things to the brink in 2017). 2020 is of course election year in the United States, and Kim Jong-un has the means to give Donald Trump an October surprise or two. In turn, should election year USA see a return to the “original state” Trump will have a big stake in not looking like a dotard. That could prove a combustible mix. Don’t rule out a Chinese style MET test of a ballistic missile armed with a thermonuclear warhead at the outer end of escalation. That would be the most spectacular October surprise in US electoral history.

Oh, and don’t forget when the Chinese tested a missile with an armed, live, nuclear warhead, just to prove a point, it was in October 1966. History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.  Plenty still doubt the ability of North Korea to fire a live nuclear warhead from a long range missile, so there’s a point to prove here (the same as in 1966). One can see something like the Chinese October 1966 test as representing the ultimate step on a ladder of escalation climbed on a tit-for-tat basis. I’m not suggesting that this is how things shall transpire, or that it is the most probable outcome, but it is a real possibility possessing of a certain logic. North Korea is a rational actor, and the three way diplomacy it is conducting between South Korea, China and Russia gives Pyongyang reason for restraint. However,  little by way of tangibles has resulted from this given that the US is blocking progress on sanctions relief a key North Korean objective. Thus far Chinese and Russian, in particular, tolerance for sanctions busting is keeping Kim Jong-un afloat, much like the US pursued a policy of “keeping Tito afloat” in 1948, but Kim wants, and needs, something more than simply staying afloat. Beijing, for instance, is calibrating its support in a way that keeps Pyongyang dependent. One doubts that North Korea will wait inordinately for Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow to provide tangible progress on joint economic activities in Northeast Asia despite US preferences. We might argue about what Kim’s new policy may end up entailing, but somehow one doubts that it will be “strategic patience.”

Should Trump blink it’ll be because he doesn’t want to look like an idiot in an election year. The chances are slim that he will. The United States is loath to reach a deal, especially after Kim’s deadline, because the elite in Washington perceive that it’s power and prestige is on the line. Washington, the modern day Athens, is supposed to dictate terms to Pyongyang, the modern day Melos, not the other way around. The strategic and foreign policy elite takes the perceived credibility of US power and prestige very seriously, but then again for Trump nothing quite trumps Trump.

I should add that a lot of the air went out of the sails of the diplomatic process following the 2018 midterms. The establishment of the link between the two requires further analysis and documentation, but there’s certainly a correlation here and there was always a sense at Singapore, and after, that Trump was on the campaign hustings both domestically and for a Nobel Peace Prize. The recent story that Trump has called upon his advisers and officials to try their hand at negotiating an arms control pact inclusive of both Russia and China could be of relevance here, as it might suggest that he is fishing for a Nobel Prize in waters beyond Korea. In which case he doesn’t envisage blinking anytime soon.

The recent North Korean test of the “new tactical guided weapon,” which some press reports of a US intelligence assessment claim was part of a guided anti-tank weapon, underscored the leverage that Kim has acquired. Say it was a guided anti-tank weapon test. Has a test of an anti-tank weapon ever garnered as much media attention before? Imagine if it were an extended range Scud, let alone an ICBM. We could be riding ourselves an escalation ladder in 2020, but if so let history record the ball got rolling in 2019 nay November 2018 if we count the last tactical weapons test before the Hanoi summit. Thus far both tests have had little impact on US policy, a fact from which Kim doubtless will draw the necessary conclusions.

Some of the comments of Vladimir Putin at the Vladivostok summit were insightful too, I would argue. For instance, he stated that South Korea suffers from a “deficit of sovereignty.” One of the reasons why the process of détente and rapprochement on the Korean peninsula is stuck is because the United States has used the denuclearisation talks, and its considerable leverage, to block progress. South Korea is stymied from fully implementing and extending its agreements with North Korea, especially those related to joint economic activities, because of multilateral sanctions which require US approval to reverse. But it’s not just that. The special role of the US in the global financial system means that détente and rapprochement require Washington’s financial support, but it also is a source of concern for South Korean financial corporations closely networked with the industrial Chaebol given Washington’s ability to impose secondary boycotts.

It appears that the left-liberal political elite in South Korea has miscalculated and has based its policy on a misreading of history. They have seen US recalcitrance as a key historical stumbling block, for example with Kim Dae-jung during the Bush era, so thereby a repeat of détente and rapprochement should boldly march ahead despite US imposed roadblocks. One got the sense for much of 2018 Moon was resolutely pursuing diplomacy based on this very reading of history. The tank traps on the beaches of Normandy were of seemingly little concern to him, however the Panzers were evidently in reserve behind the line.

The key premise here is that the left-liberal reformers need to achieve détente with North Korea before embarking on internal reform of South Korea’s political economy, which is dominated by conservative corporate conglomerates the aforementioned Chaebol. That also has been a key policy goal. It is too hard for the left-liberals to do both, so détente with North Korea has come first because of the clear and present danger of nuclear war and because there’s a more solid and endurable domestic constituency for it. Perhaps the strategy was one of island hoping; political capital gained on the one front could see the left-liberals swing toward the Chaebol. It looks, however, as if things should be in reverse. Détente with North Korea first requires reform in South Korea because the combination of a conservative economic order at home and a recalcitrant US abroad places too tight a constraint on South Korean external action. The labour movement in South Korea has been highly repressed, and not just historically but contemporaneously too. South Korea has a violent and brutal labour history, and any reform of the political economy of South Korea requires the support of a mobilised South Korean labour movement. By reforming South Korea the left-liberals can free themselves of one important constraint inhibiting the sovereign pursuit of foreign policy.

Now there’s irony for you. Détente on the Korean peninsula is not possible without an aroused South Korean working class.

The other point that Putin made was that it needs to be recognised that all sides to the standoff have interests. You would not know that from the continued dominance of the nuclear obsession in public discourse, which is primarily a reflection of American interests. But North Korea’s interest in sanctions relief, let alone the humanitarian aspect, is widely given short shrift. Of much more interest is the usual fare of satellite imagery of things that interest Americans, which isn’t hunger in the North Korean countryside. Rail cars at Yongbyon and trucks at the Mirim Training Ground were enough to garner headlines in the recent period, but not starving North Koreans.

The United States remains the world’s preeminent superpower and a prerogative of power has always been that the hegemon’s interests, even when understood just in straight power terms, need to be carefully attended to regardless of the legitimate interests of others. So it is that Washington has interests, but Pyongyang doesn’t. So it is that America’s nuclear obsession dominates discourse, but Pyongyang’s interests are routinely dismissed as demanding of us too much. So it is that rail cars garner more interest than the hungry.

It is not like as if North Korea’s nuclear weapons do not provide us with a shared interest in survival. They clearly do. The problem is that the power elite in Washington, as always, puts greater store on the interests of state than the interests of people. The standoff on the Korean peninsula, but not just there, might have a more happy ending should the people in 2020 come to assert their interests rather than be fooled, once again, by somebody who has a greater interest in the stroking of his own ego than the destruction of the whole world.