Mon, Jun 03, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Kim Jong-un’s ‘Moneyball’ strategy beating Trump’s home runs

By Kent Harrington

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prioritized pomp over policy while hosting US President Donald Trump last week. The one exception was the issue of North Korea, which recently conducted more short-range missile tests off its east coast.

Abe is clearly anxious about keeping Japan and the US on the same page now that Trump’s denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have faltered.

However, at a joint news conference on Monday last week, Trump dismissed concerns about the latest tests — breaking not just with Abe, but also with his own advisers.

Abe has every reason to worry that Kim is gaining an important diplomatic edge. To be sure, as the North Korean economy struggles and food shortages loom, Kim’s bromance with Trump has failed to secure an easing of economic sanctions.

However, he has now reshuffled his negotiating team and tried to strike a statesmanlike pose, offering to hold yet another summit with Trump if the terms are right.

At the same time, Kim has been shoring up his position for further negotiations, not least by reaching out to China and Russia. Such overtures by the North Korean regime certainly are not unprecedented, but they are unusual.

As the scion of a dynasty that has jealously guarded the North’s independence for 70 years, Kim, like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the state’s founder, regards national self-reliance as sacrosanct. Though China and Russia are the Kim regime’s traditional allies, Kim’s grandfather and father, Kim Jong-il, always kept their distance from the two powers, often playing one off against the other. By contrast, Kim is teaming up with both to tilt the geostrategic field in his favor.

China, Russia and North Korea most likely are not sharing a script, but they do appear to have settled on a division of labor, and are operating accordingly.

Kim is doing his job on the Korean Peninsula, exploiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s eagerness for rapprochement, to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US. He is even entertaining the possibility of talks with Abe, who is desperate not to be excluded from the high-level exchanges.

China, meanwhile, is playing its traditional role as the North’s most influential partner. Ignoring US demands that Kim must abandon his nuclear program before sanctions can be eased, China has suggested that sanctions relief could be used as a confidence-building measure on the way to a political resolution.

For its part, Russia, which participated in failed negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear program more than a decade ago, has now taken the field on Kim’s behalf.

In April, Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the first time. Rejecting the idea that US and South Korean security guarantees could ever suffice to persuade Kim to follow through with denuclearization, Putin called for renewed talks with Russia and China at the table.

This Sino-Russian-North Korean collaboration will most likely continue. Kim has already made a habit of calling Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) before and after his summits with Trump, and his regime would probably be in more frequent contact with the Kremlin, too.

This does not bode well for US objectives on the Korean Peninsula. Though Russia and China would pay lip service to the need for denuclearization, neither country has ever seriously tried to impede the Kim regime’s weapons program.

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