Kim Jong-un gives up on nuclear diplomacy
Addressing North Korean veterans on Monday, Kim Jong Un appeared to draw a line under his nuclear weapons diplomacy with President Trump, Washington Examiner writes in the article Did Kim Jong Un just bury Trump's nuclear diplomacy? Kim did so by suggesting that his nuclear weapons program is no longer up for negotiation. As the Workers Party of Korea chairman put it, "War is an armed clash, which can be unleashed only against a weak one. None can now make little of us. We will not allow others to look down upon us, and, if they do so, make them pay dearly.
Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word 'war' would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever."
That final line — "guaranteed forever" — is noteworthy. As with all his public addresses, Kim knows this speech will be carefully assessed by foreign intelligence services. The political analysts at the CIA's Korean Mission Center, for example, will consider Kim's comments in the context of other intelligence reporting on his thinking and that of his inner circle.
Attention to Kim's ever-shifting inner circle is a powerful reflection of his attitude toward the U.S. negotiating track in any one moment. And with the inner circle presently centered around Kim Yong Chol's uber-hardliner faction, Kim's rhetoric here should raise eyebrows. Kim's explicit linkage of the "future of our state" as being "guaranteed forever" by "nuclear deterrence" would seem to preclude any surrendering of his nuclear weapons. Yes, Kim's surrender of those weapons was always highly unlikely. But there have been previous indications to suggest that Kim might give up his long-range ballistic missiles and commit to some kind of nuclear safeguarding program.
This new rhetoric's emphasis toward escalation does not exist in a vacuum. While the North Korean leader has not yet returned to intercontinental ballistic missile tests, he has secretly advanced his missile program. This development has centered on missile targeting and telemetry and the reentry vehicles that carry nuclear warheads to their targets. Kim might even have sought to confirm U.S. intelligence reporting on these improvements with his Monday description of the nuclear program as "reliable and effective." Put simply, Kim's next intercontinental missile test is likely to show marked proficiency improvement over the last test in 2017.
There's another reason to think the U.S.-North Korean nuclear diplomacy is heading in a negative direction: the rapidly escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington. China's Xi Jinping is likely to believe that his manipulation of the North Korean nuclear crisis offers a means of pressuring Trump in the run-up to November's presidential election. Because of the very public profile Trump has given his treatment of this issue, any new escalation from Kim will create political complications for the president.
Of course, a Chinese move to encourage North Korean escalation also carries risks. If identified by the United States, it would risk the imposition of even greater U.S. pressure on China. Were Xi to want Joe Biden elected come November, escalation might also risk Trump benefiting from a rallying around the flag effect. But the possibility of Chinese interference toward escalation cannot be discounted. For one, China is now openly flouting United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang.
In short, Kim's rhetoric and the current political environment don't suggest smooth diplomatic waters ahead.