Once again, we—and the world—begin the week trying to figure out what US policy with respect to North Korea actually is. From the White House, President Trump issued two tweets suggesting that negotiations were pointless (below). This was accompanied by his cryptic comments at a dinner for military commanders and their spouses that the gathering represented "the calm before the storm." What storm? Needless to say, Sarah Huckabee was pressed on the issue. She backed away from linking the president’s comment to North Korea and reminded the questioner that the administration was also placing maximum economic pressure on North Korea.
Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2017
Our country has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years, giving billions of dollars & getting nothing. Policy didn't work!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2017
Huckabee was asked directly if the comments reflected the president’s belief in the so-called “madman theory”: the idea that in a game of chicken it can be strategically useful to appear less than rational. In response, she reverted to the trope that the president did not want to “lay out his game plan to his enemies.” I think it is fair to say that there is little risk of that eventuality. But the intense personal flap with Senator Corker reveals that at least some Republicans in the Senate are perfectly aware that the president’s tweets have undercut the authority of the Secretary of State to manage the issue.
While journalists made little headway probing the president’s comments directly, a less-noticed story from Reuters suggested a more plausible North Korea link: that the president’s comments might be related to an anticipated missile test, perhaps as early as tomorrow. That information appeared to come from Anton Morozov, a member of the Russian lower house who visited Pyongyang last week, reporting that a particularly belligerent mood prevailed; New York Times reporters in Pyongyang, including Nicholas Kristoff and Carol Giacomo (See here and here) reached similar conclusions. But more significant was the Reuters story’s report that both an unidentified US official and a CIA analyst had predicted another missile test on or around October 10 as well, meaning that the administration either had intelligence to this effect too or at least deemed Morozov credible.
Yet much further down the chain of command, the Tillerson approach still appears to be the official line. In remarks to a media roundtable in Canberra that were forwarded to us, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Matthews was assuring the Australians that “there are numerous channels of conversation going on designed to bring North Korea into an effective negotiation that will lead them on a path towards denuclearization; that's the goal.” And while the president has suggested that Kim Jong Un was suicidal and irrational, Yong Suk Lee, Deputy Assistant Director of CIA for the Korea Mission Center, was willing to go on the record suggesting the opposite: that Kim Jong Un’s behavior reflected quite rational survival motives.
At this juncture, the only audience that matters is the North Korean one and as usual little attention was being given to what they themselves are saying. Over the weekend, the regime convened the Central Committee (technically, the 2nd plenary of the 7th WPK Central Committee), which is not a trivial event: North Korea Leadership Watch provides the most thorough coverage, which included some yet-to-be digested personnel changes. Kim Jong Un’s comments, as reported in the KCNA, are revealing. On the one hand, he clearly acknowledged the economic squeeze that has either arrived or is coming, for example by returning to themes of self-reliance and directing all “economic guidance organs” to “strictly implement the revolutionary responding strategy (sic).” Yet the speech—even with its bravado—makes it completely clear that the leadership believes it is justified in pursuing the byungjin line, will continue to do so, and is using the crisis to appeal to internal party discipline and mass support. Again, the Times reporters got the same message.
One of the more chilling lines in Nicholas Kristof’s letter from Pyongyang makes a good closing line for yet another Groundhog Day:
“Hard-liners seem to have gained greater power this year, especially after Trump’s threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea, and we were told that military officers sometimes mock their own country’s diplomats for being wimpish ‘American cronies.’”
Look who else has no interest in negotiations? I keep hoping that the sanctions will hit quickly and hard and that some deft diplomacy between the United States and China—which Matthews also confirmed in Canberra—would generate a narrow path out of the current impasse. But I am increasingly of the view that this is not going to end well. If you are nervous, you are nervous for a reason.