Signals Galore: The True Meaning of the Last Week on the Peninsula



After the NBC reporting of last week, commentary on the peninsula got ahead of what was actually being said. Part of the problem could be traced to decidedly mixed messages from the Trump administration. But part of it stems from not paying attention to signs of caution that were on ample display. Indeed, if anyone was sending tough messages it was arguably the Chinese, recurrent calls for “calm on all sides” notwithstanding. Given what the North Koreans put on display at the parade over the weekend, Chinese concern is amply warranted. Here are some of the core signals that were being sent.

North Korea: The byungjin line is alive and well.  

Virtually all analysis viewed Kim Jong-un’s opening of Ryomyong Street as an anticlimax. A ribbon-cutting was the “big surprise” visiting reporters had been promised? But when viewed with what was on display in the military parade the next day, it is clear that the two events were self-consciously designed as bookends. The signal: the byungjin line of simultaneous pursuit of economic reconstruction and the nuclear and missile programs is alive and well.

The regime has long invested heavily in Pyongyang—generating what I have called “the Pyongyang illusion.” But the political logic is impeccable. Challenges emanate from capital cities, and keeping the elite happy—and perhaps moving out those who are less desirable—is a rational survival strategy. Kim Jong-un has been even more invested in such projects than his father, backing construction of another set of high-rise apartments on Changjon Street in 2012 and personally “supervising” the rushed construction effort on Ryomyong Street with two on-the-spot guidance tours earlier in the year (NKNews has its usual thorough coverage of the progress of the project). I wouldn’t want to live in the 70-story towers, only one of the many buildings pushed up in the current urban construction boom. But the message is unmistakable. “Sanctions, what sanctions?”

And that was before the alarming results of the parade the next day. We don’t yet have the deep dives in print, but there is plenty of good coverage, including Anna Fifield at the Washington Post, drawing on real-time commentary by the inimitable Jeffrey Lewis, Ankit Panda's great interview at The Diplomat with Melissa Hanham (with Lewis, also at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey), and Panda’s own synthesis (here and here). To be sure, some of the more spectacular missiles—most notably the two previously unseen ICBMs on board massive transporter erector launchers (TELs)—were in canisters and are probably mock-ups or even just design concepts. And the KN-08/KN-14 has not been tested. But high-resolution photos provided ample opportunity for the great open-source missile-tracking community, and the message was clear: underestimation of North Korean capabilities continues.

Here, we can only list some of the mounting consensus: steady success with solid-fuel; the Pukkuksong-2 or KN-15, a land variant of the KN-11 first tested in February; tracked transporter erector launcher (TELs), showing that the North Koreans have increased their mobility and managed to get around constraints on the number of launchers; and a possible KN17 which—not coincidentally given the supposed movement of the Carl Vinson—could target ships.

Given this new look at the scope of the North Korean arsenal, I am hard pressed to see why the failure of a single test while Pence was in Korea should be seen as any cause for joy. To the contrary, the willingness to test at a rapid clip shows the determination with which the regime is pursuing these capabilities, again, sanctions notwithstanding.

That said, there is likely some bluffing in Kim In-ryong's press conference on April 17th, in which he welcomed reporters with comments about enjoying their weekend before threatening that thermonuclear war could break out at any time. Do the North Koreans really have the capability? But more important is how much appetite for risk the Trump administration has. My suspicion: less than it appears.

The US: Strategic Patience is Not Dead.  

The Vice President has now solemnly added his voice to earlier comments by Secretary Tillerson that the era of strategic patience is over. Such product differentiation is a standard practice of all incoming administrations before it gives way to a recognition that—in the President’s now-classic words—“it’s not so easy.” But as I have said before, saying that there are military options on the table does not mean that those options are good. And saying that strategic patience is over does not mean that the administration has anything more coherent up its sleeve. After saying that strategic patience was dead, the Vice President immediately pivoted to underline how the US was going to work with “allies and partners,” including China, to turn this around. No one thinks such a turnaround is likely to be particularly swift.

To be sure, Trump has changed the strategic context to some extent. The Obama administration made some progress in securing Chinese cooperation in the two Security Council resolutions of 2016. But the sad fact is that those resolutions did not have material effect and the administration was reluctant to move toward secondary sanctions. And the Obama administration certainly did not have the strikes in Syria and Afghanistan in hand when seeking to negotiate with Beijing on the issue.

But a close reading of McMaster's remarks—the most cogent statement of US policy over the last week—suggests a nuanced approach consisting of three stages.

  • During the immediate post-Mar-a-Lago period—which could extend into months—the President himself has stated his willingness to work with China, even to the extent of foregoing trade and exchange rate actions that constituted central campaign promises. This period might be called the “new era of strategic patience,” and involve seeing whether the recent coal sanctions and possible other measures will have material effect.
  • A second stage, involving a shot-across-the-bow or open breach with China, would involve ramping up secondary sanctions), either as a further signal to Beijing or to try to get the job done unilaterally.
  • Only with a highly provocative action, perhaps even something more dramatic than a nuclear test such as a successful test of an ICBM, would we expect a kinetic response, and even then McMaster himself acknowledged the risks.

(We can’t help mentioning the embarrassing coverage of the Carl Vinson. The Vinson's return to Korea was ordered on April 8 by PACOM commander Adm. Harris. But the press portrayed the story as if the Vinson task force were steaming toward the North Korean coast, fangs at the ready. In fact, DOD denied that the Vinson was anywhere near the Korean Peninsula at the time “all options are on the table” comments were being made by McMaster and Pence; see this site, which provides near real-time locations of all US carriers).

China: Don’t Believe Our Ongoing Calls for “Calm on All Sides”: We Are Thinking Hard About All of This

If there is anything that the Trump administration has managed to do, it is to sharply shift the onus for results onto China. How far China will actually go this round remains to be seen, but the US appears to finally be delivering the right message: that we don’t care what particular sectors you sanction, measures you take or UNSC resolutions you allow to pass; we care about whether they have any material and political effect on North Korean calculations. This is the meaning of Tillerson’s remarks that North Korea needs to change its mindset.

Despite calls for calm, there are as many interesting signals coming out of China as out of North Korea. We are now seeing more and more open questioning of North Korea’s strategic value, from intellectual leaders like Chinese historian Shen Zhihua to the chatter on Weibo (on which more tomorrow). It is a cardinal rule of all China watchers that you should not rely on the Global Times as an indicator of anything. But it cautioned last week in circuitous language that if North Korea tested, and the UNSC issued new sanctions—which China would of course have to shape—that Beijing would enforce them. On Monday, the paper restated the warning with a twist, calling for China to reconsider its oil exports to the country. And in perhaps the most amazing language of all, the paper basically said that if the US struck North Korea, it would be Pyongyang’s fault and that they would suffer more than anyone else. So much for the mutual defense treaty between the two countries.

North Korea is clearly hiding, apparently snubbing requests from Wang Yi and Wu Dawei for face-to-face meetings. And for good reason. In a little noticed riff in the Kim In-ryong interview, he openly rejected the Chinese approach of combining denuclearization and peace regime talks, reiterating that a peace regime would have to come first. To mimic the President “It’s not going to happen!” The metric for measuring Chinese cooperation has now been reset: how long will you allow the DPRK to push you around? Stay tuned.

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