North Korea recently issued a statement that the United States should change its “hostile policies” toward the East-Asian communist regime and that Washington would have to decide “what Christmas gift it would select to get.” Is that a threat or a face-saving way of showing leniency and willingness to cooperate? It’s hard to tell.
On the surface, the negotiations seem to be souring, and the hope of denuclearization dwindling. That may be what is happening, but another possibility is that this is precisely the kind of behavior one would expect from an autocracy. Dictators are always only a few signs of weakness away from being dethroned by opportunistic factions waiting in the shadows. It could be that the supreme leader Kim Jong Un is not negotiating with President Donald Trump as much as with his own generals and party members.
Any concession to America is seen as a weakness. Kim must, therefore, rattle his saber to show that he is not a pushover. This is especially true since Trump recently revived his old nickname, “rocketman.”
Although Pyongyang sends outraged messages that Trump is only dragging out the negotiations in hopes of using them as a card to secure a re-election, not long ago the leadership of North Korea also issued a statement that former Vice President Joe Biden is a “rabid dog” that must be “beaten to death with a stick before it is too late.”
One may ask: Too late for what? One interpretation is that Kim fears that due to the ongoing impeachment hearings, Trump will lose his 2020 re-election to current Democrat frontrunner Biden, which will likely close any window of opportunity for a good deal between the two nations. However, if people in America can hear the underlying tone of fear, surely so does the opposition inside North Korea. To save face, Kim must once again show strength, standing up to the most powerful man in the world.
Riding in the Mountain
All this coincides with several significant internal events in North Korea. First, Kim released an image of himself riding in the woods near the sacred mountain of Paektu. Domestically, this is interpreted as a sign of a monumental pending decision or announcement. This coincided with North Korea announcing the opening of a new city and “socialist utopia” near Paektu.
It is hard to tell what this signifies. The opening of the city gives Kim cover for why he was riding in the mountain but could also be utilized for a decision regarding negotiations with America. Asia researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Stein Tønnesson thinks that a crisis is brewing that will deteriorate the relations between the two nations to pre-2017 levels. He reports that Kim is traveling the country, preparing people for war.
The big question is whether this is just internal power management or if Kim is serious about escalating the conflict. For now, we can only wait and see.
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