The United States made a mistake – it mistook the North Korean leader’s ruthlessness for mental instability.
He is a demented, crazy dictator who shouldn't be allowed in close proximity to the nuclear button. The talks to try and deter or suppress him are pointless. These strategies might work when the opponent is a reasonable player. And who can say this about North Korea's Kim Jong Un, writes Philip Stevens, the associate editor of the Financial Times.
This is how they talk in Washington. Few could argue against the fact that Kim is leading one of the most repressive and inhumane regimes in the world. Taking most indicators into account, he is probably the worst leader, with millions left to starve in the name of his nuclear mania and with brutal suppression of the smallest sign of disobedience.
And despite all that, the United States made a mistake. It mistook this ruthlessness for mental instability. Kim knows what he is doing, as do those around him.
Last autumn, a delegation of North Korean representatives met with Western experts on foreign policy and defense behind closed doors in Switzerland. This was the last of several secret attempts – since denied – in recent years to examine the prospects of terminating the nuclear situation between Pyongyang and the international community.
The North Koreans were relentless. Kim would put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile. There is no other way to divert American "aggression," he claimed. Pyongyang would never bow its head to international sanctions – a topic on which diplomats used the same words to address Russia and China as they used to address the United States. This last meeting ended in a deadlock, though not before Western representatives observed that the behavior of their interlocutors was contrary to all known stereotypes. These are clever people.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump feels more comfortable with caricature sketches of his opponents. The U.S. president avoids diplomacy, taking advantage of firing broadsides through Twitter. He depicts the North Korean leader as “Little Rocket Man.” His tweet about his button being “much bigger & more powerful” was how Trump compared the nuclear arsenals of the two countries. Trump recently called Kim "a sick puppy." Pyongyang erupted with its own description of the U.S. president as a "dotard." If we block out all the white noise, however, we can see how Kim has outwitted his adversary in each and every case.
The louder Trump shouts, the more credible becomes the North Korean leader's statement that he needs the nuclear program as an insurance policy against the U.S. plan to change the regime. Even before Trump walked into the White House, the United States – and the world – was already paying for former President George W. Bush’s speech on the “Axis of Evil.”
The decision of the North Korean despot to send a high level delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea – including cheerleaders – was proclaimed to a large extent as a victory. But it was something more than that. This was a master class in international diplomacy that immediately made the U.S. look weak, and by buying more time, allowed Kim to reinforce his aspirations for long-range missiles.
The purpose was obvious – to turn Washington and Seoul against one another and to present North Korea with a more human appearance to the world. By sending his sister Kim Yo Jong together with the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, the North Korean leader ensured extensive coverage among international media. His sister didn't say anything publicly, but she was smiling at the right moments, which was in sharp contrast to the somber presence of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
The White House proposed its goal openly. Pence arrived in Seoul, insisting that Washington would begin negotiations only if Pyongyang stopped its nuclear program. He left, saying that the United States would sit at the negotiating table without any preconditions. It was not long ago when Trump promised to pour down "fire and fury" over Pyongyang. Now, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is wondering whether to accept an invitation for a summit meeting with Kim.
Seoul has no illusions about the nature of the regime in the North. The South Koreans are not misled by the Olympic Games. In addition, they are also aware that Kim has the capacity, according to Trump's words, to pour fire and fury on South Korea.
Pyongyang’s diplomacy, regardless of how cynical it is, has blurred some of the dividing lines. While the two sides are speaking, Trump is facing regional and international pressure not to push the button.
North Korea has almost no friends among U.S. allies. However, Trump blew his chances for even the smallest international support for a military strike.
Kim in turn wants recognition as a state with nuclear weapons before he finally decides to negotiate. The few months during which South Korea and Washington remain at odds may give him the time he needs.
Despite everything, Trump may begin a pre-emptive strike and Kim could overplay his hand. But there are no good military options. Experts with access to the Pentagon’s plans say that the only way to avoid any retaliatory strike from North Korea against the South is for the United States to make the first nuclear strike. This is not just dangerous, it's unthinkable.
There is no good ending to this story. China does not want to risk the regime’s collapse through sanctions. Therefore, the chances are high that Pyongyang will manufacture its missiles with all the accompanying risks of further proliferation of such a program. The United States will continue with deterrence and suppression. The fact that Kim is not crazy is the tiniest of consolations.