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What Kim Jong Un's big bad weapons blitz really means

Listen closely — he's not talking about going to war but about something quite different. Is Biden listening?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

North Korea is often labeled as a crazy, unhinged regime, hellbent on fueling some sort of crisis that could restart the Korean War, a conflict that claimed the lives of millions of people. And yet, over at least the last few years, North Korea has done everything it could to signal the opposite, that it does in fact want a new relationship with the international community, and most of all the United States.

There’s just one problem with all of that: North Korea wants that new relationship to be one where the global order bestows upon Pyongyang the status of a de facto nuclear weapons state. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not care if the United States acknowledges it or not, but his goal is once again quite clear. He might be willing to cap his atomic and missile programs where they are in terms of qualitative and quantitative achievement, however, Kim has his history book at the ready. He knows there is no chance of a U.S.-led regime-change operation if he has his hand on the nuclear button. There is no concession, no sanctions relief, no dollar amount that will ever get Kim to give up the ultimate insurance policy. None.

Case in point: Kim’s attendance at and comments during Pyongyang’s extravagant missile and arms displays this week on state television, the first such event ever shown to international audiences. Pyongyang, in a clever effort to capture international attention around its nuclear and missile program advances, decided to showcase those platforms in not some highly controversial missile test that would attract calls for more sanctions. Instead, it decided to show off new ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, tanks, and even hypersonic weapons that military analysts will be drooling over months to come. Heck, the Kim regime posted the video to YouTube, for all to see. It isn’t packaged as a typical North Korean propaganda film, either, but more of what Pyongyang wants you to envision: a respected, western-style leader in a western-style suit looking over his supposed legitimate weapons of self-defense. The video and expo looked more like something crafted by a U.S. defense contractor than the North Korean government. The goal was to try and confer a sense of legitimacy and respect on the regime and its leadership through a new medium, not terror-inspiring weapons tests, as in years past.

That was, indeed, a slick move. But it might just be Kim’s comments during the exhibition that emerged as the most critical part of this event, and I think what he actually wants us to pay attention to. Kim surely bragged about the power of his armed forces, recently testing or showing off a good chunk of the weapons he promised to develop during a speech to the Eighth Workers Party Congress in January. But he quickly dropped hints that he has a practical, more restrained view of his arms — and what they were built for in the first place. “We are not talking about a war with someone; we are building up [a] war deterrent true to the meaning of the words in order to prevent the war itself and to safeguard the sovereignty of our state,” declaring, that, “[o]ur arch-enemy is the war itself, not south Korea, the United States or any other specific state or forces.”

Packed alongside standard-fare North Korean propaganda, those are highly conciliatory and what I would call positive statements, from a leader who wants compromise and dialogue with the U.S. and South Korea, and of course, on his own terms. Kim’s comments about the United States are especially noteworthy. “Recently, the United States has frequently sent signals that it is not hostile to our state, but its [behaviors] provide us with no reason why we should believe in them.” Translation: Kim is angry that while the Biden Administration continues to say it wants to talk to North Korea anywhere, anyplace, and at any time on any issue, Team Biden has no clear policy on North Korea at all. Saying you want to talk is not a strategy or a policy. And Kim Jong-un is clearly worried that if he was to once again commit to a negotiation with Washington — with no idea what sort of concessions he might get — he could once again be walking into a situation where he cannot achieve the sorts of sanctions relief he might be looking for.

And Kim has good reason to be concerned. The last time he expended large sums of political capital to talk to the U.S., he paid the price. While Kim surely miscalculated, thinking President Donald Trump would offer much more in sanctions relief for only a small step towards nuclear weapons, Kim was not watching what was happening in Washington as the Hanoi talks were set to start. Trump faced a brutal few days of congressional hearings when then-former Trump loyalist Michael Cohen dominated the headlines — and Trump’s thinking. The president stayed up all night instead of preparing for talks with North Korea. Thanks to John Bolton’s plan to convince Trump he could look tough by walking away, the president refused to counter Kim’s demand for large-scale sanctions relief in exchange for closing the Yongbyon nuclear facility. It was a crushing blow to Kim, who had signaled countless times in state media that a deal with the Great Satan in Hanoi was in the offing. He has been extremely risk-averse ever since. 

At the same time, Washington is also risk-averse in dealing with the DPRK. North Korea, to put it bluntly, just doesn't rise to the top of the list of national problems facing Team Biden these days. The pandemic, passing a massive economic restructuring plan totaling over three trillion dollars, economic recovery, a looming debt ceiling crisis, and tensions with China, all take center stage these days. Combine all this with the chaotic nature of the Afghanistan withdrawal, President Biden is not exactly eager to get into a diplomatic dance with Pyongyang, especially knowing any negotiations will take time and have no obvious or immediate political payoff.

That all leaves Kim with some very hard choices. Back in January at the Eighth Workers Party Congress, Kim noted North Korea was also working on nuclear submarines, solid-fueled ICBMs, and even tactical nuclear weapons. Considering he has already shown off cruise and hypersonic missiles this year in various tests, as also alluded to in his Workers Party Congress address, will he just continue scratching off items on that list? My fear is that Kim will feel he has received no reward for his restraint and decide that only missile tests and nuclear detonations get him any attention. And that could mean that the Biden Administration, fearing that it will be labeled weak in any response towards a North Korea provocation must look tough, and could overreact. If that were to occur, 2022 could very much look like 2017 on the Korean Peninsula—with a nuclear showdown seemingly always around the corner.

North Korean state television/You Tube coverage of recent Kim gave the speech Monday at the Defense Development Exhibition in October 2021. (screenshot)
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