What Does Kim Jong-Un Really Want in the North Korean Standoff?


Is there anything the US could give North Korea that would make it end its nuclear and missile programmes?

Given the escalating war of words between the US and North Korea, and Donald Trump’s warning of ‘fire and fury’ if Kim Jong-un overtly threatens the United States or launches missiles against the US territory of Guam, it is unclear how useful diplomacy is as tool for moderating regional tensions.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior Trump administration officials have stressed the importance of diplomacy, and even Trump has in the past offered to talk to Kim, but there are no signs that the North Koreans are open to dialogue. Recent informal track-two level talks with North Korean officials in Europe suggest that Pyongyang is single-mindedly focused on continuing with its missile and nuclear-weapons testing programmes.

Strikingly at the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila recently, there was no meeting between Tillerson and Ri Yong-ho, the North Korean foreign minister, and a proposal for talks between Seoul and Pyongyang offered by Kang Kyung-wha, the South Korean foreign minister, was summarily rebuffed by the North Koreans.

In principle, there are incentives that the US could offer the North, including talks on a peace treaty ending the Korean War, preliminary steps towards diplomatic recognition (such as the establishment of a US liaison mission in Pyongyang), or an agreement on conventional arms reductions on the peninsula, but these are at best long-term objectives.

The North’s repeated violations of past diplomatic agreements with the US has eroded any appetite for concessions in Washington where there is deep-seated distrust of the North on both sides of the political aisle and an assumption that pressure, via the latest round of tougher UN sanctions targeting the North’s mineral and food exports, and restrictions on North Korean overseas labour, is the best way of bringing Pyongyang to heel.

Is North Korea’s ultimate or unswayable goal the possession of a nuclear deterrent?

Since coming to power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un’s priorities have been focused consistently on two simple objectives of military modernization and delivering economic prosperity for the North Korean public.

The North’s nuclear aspirations date from the 1960s and are consistent with the regime’s desire for political and military autonomy in the face of opposition not only from its traditional enemies such as the United States, Japan and South Korea, but also over the objections of its historical partners such as China and Russia.


Part of the North’s motivation is a rational assessment of the country’s strategic interests. The experience of Libya and Iraq is a reminder to Pyongyang that the only guarantee of national survival is the possession of a credible weapons of mass destruction capability. While Washington has expressed no ‘hostile intent’ to the North, Pyongyang maintains that the United States, as a conventionally superior and nuclear armed power, with 28,000 troops in South Korean, and a policy of maintaining a first-use nuclear option, represents a clear threat to the country.

Kim’s nuclear and missile testing ambitions are also an expression of identity politics. The legitimacy of the Kim dynasty’s political leadership is rooted in a narrative of defence against an implacably hostile United States. The 1950-53 Korean War, framed in North Korean propaganda as the result of direct US aggression, is used to depict the United States to the North Korean people as an adversary intent on destroying the country. For the country’s older generation that recall US actions during the war, when virtually every urban centre in the North was obliterated by American bombing, this narrative is a convincing one and is routinely reinforced for the wider population in the state’s daily political messages.

Trump’s recent bellicose public statements are a propaganda gift to Kim Jong-un, allowing him to bolster his standing as the nation’s commander in chief and protector of the country.

Could a nuclear-armed North Korea co-exist with the US?

The North’s accelerated missile testing campaign and last year’s two successful nuclear tests have materially enhanced the country’s deterrent capabilities. Recent intelligence reports from the US have suggested that the country may have as many as 60 nuclear bombs (a figure disputed by some analysts) and its long-range missile tests of 4 and 28 July indicate that the North may have the capacity to hit parts of the United States.

A recent report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has questioned the extent to which this improved missile capability genuinely allows the North to deploy a nuclear warhead against the US, but there is little doubt that Pyongyang has made dramatic progress in the last year in securing full de-facto membership of the nuclear club.

Washington, however, has made it clear that it will not recognize or tolerate such a development. To do so would offer a propaganda victory to the North, critically undermine America’s relations with its key regional allies – Japan and South Korea – prompt a destabilizing arms race in the region, and destabilize the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Is any of what North Korea wants realistic?

Pyongyang’s priority is to push ahead aggressively with testing, both of its missiles and its nuclear weapons, in an effort to solidify its deterrent capabilities. For Kim, this makes sense as means of boosting his political authority and legitimacy at home. He can take comfort from China’s apparent reluctance to impose, serious crippling economic restrictions on the North, despite its recent support for tougher UN sanctions.

He can also calculate rationally that ultimately the United States, as many experienced observers are arguing, will accept the need to negotiate some form of intermediate freeze in the North’s military capabilities in the hope that this will stabilize the strategic situation while keeping the door open to future disarmament. By then, Kim may hope he will be able to secure a range of concessions from the US and South Korea, whether in the form of economic assistance, conventional arms reductions, or more importantly the political respect and status as an independent, sovereign state that the North has long craved.

The wild card in the current situation is how far President Trump’s rhetorical brinkmanship will deter the North from pushing ahead with its missile testing programme. The North Korean military has threatened to test fire four intermediate range missiles in the vicinity of the US military facilities on Guam later this month. No US president could tolerate a direct attack, but a test launch in the international waters close to the island would arguably represent a ‘grey zone’ contingency that would require a more nuanced response, stopping short of full-blown military conflict.

Discussions of the current stand-off have focused on the parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the strategic judgment of the US president at the time, John F Kennedy. His caution in seeking to avoid nuclear war was shaped by his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August and its insights into the lessons of the First World War.

It is ironic and telling that once again August is a time of acute strategic risk and uncertainty, when the rhetoric, assessments and actions of national leaders are likely to carry profound significance for regional and global security.

This article was originally published by BBC News.

Trump Repealism Rolls Back Obama’s Cuba Reforms

Grunge Cuban flag, image is overlaying a detailed grungy texture

Donald Trump’s push to repeal many of the Obama administration’s foreign policy initiatives has extended to the landmark lifting of the embargo against Cuba. Will the new hardline approach be effective in achieving its goal of encouraging political reform and economic liberalisation? 

On 16 June, US President Donald Trump announced a long-expected change in US foreign policy towards Cuba. The new policy will roll back many of the Obama administration’s reforms including travel liberalisation, while imposing further restrictions.

The exiles and dissidents here today have witnessed communism destroy a nation, just as communism has destroyed every single nation where it has ever been tried. But we will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer. You have seen the truth, you have spoken the truth, and the truth has now called us—this group—called us to action.Last year, I promised to be a voice against repression in our region—remember, tremendous oppression—and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people. You heard that pledge. You exercised the right you have to vote. You went out and you voted. And here I am like I promised—like I promised.Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba 16 June 2017, Manuel Artime Theater, Miami, Florida, US.

Specific elements of the Trump policy include restrictions that prohibit individual travel (with the exception of Cuban Americans who will continue to be able to visit relatives in Cuba and send remittances) and limit non-academic educational travel to organised groups. While the US embassy in Havana will remain, the policy effectively reaffirms the statutory embargo of Cuba.

The stated objectives of the Trump policy are to:

  • “enhance compliance with United States (US) law—in particular, the provisions that govern the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism”;
  • hold Cuba “accountable for oppression and human rights”;
  • further US “national security and foreign policy interests”; and
  • empower the “Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty”.

The policy changes seek to prohibit business, trade and financial transactions between US companies and entities linked to the Cuban military’s holding company Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA). Instead, it seeks to promote direct economic ties between US individuals and entities and the private sector in Cuba. According to the White House, the policy will promote commerce with “free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector”.

The Trump policy was announced at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami, Florida, before a gathering of Cuban Americans. The new policy fulfilled a commitment made by the Trump campaign several weeks before the 2016 election in which Donald Trump pledged to roll back the Obama administration’s reforms. It was made in order to secure the presidential endorsement of the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association—the organisation of veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Florida Republicans Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, both influential advocates for the continuation of the US embargo against Cuba, supported the Trump initiative.

On the day of the announcement, the Cuban government responded in the strongest terms. In a statement published in Cuba’s official newspaper Granma, the government condemned Trump’s action as a “setback in the relations between both countries”.

“Once again, the US government resorts to coercive methods of the past when it adopts measures aimed at stepping up the blockade, effective since February 1962, which not only causes harm and deprivations to the Cuban people and is the main obstacle to our economic development, but also affects the sovereignty and interests of other countries, which arouses international rejection…

“The Government of Cuba condemns the new measures to tighten the blockade, which are doomed to failure, as has been repeatedly evidenced in the past, for they will not succeed in their purpose to weaken the Revolution or bend the Cuban people, whose resistance against aggressions of all sorts and origins has been put to the test throughout almost six decades….”

With the exception of hardline anti-communist Cuban Americans, the Trump administration’s approach to Cuba has limited support within the US. For example, a December 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 75 per cent approved of the 2015 Obama administration decision to re-establish US relations with Cuba, while approximately 73 per cent favoured ending the trade embargo against Cuba.

Following the Trump announcement, the Engage Cuba Coalition—a US lobby group which advocates for the lifting of the embargo—published a statement noting that the directive would negatively impact Cuban entrepreneurs and that the new restrictions could cost the US economy “billions of dollars and affect thousands of jobs”.

In the days leading up to the Trump announcement, human rights groups, such as Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watchand the Washington Office on Latin America, also expressed concerns about the implications of the proposed changes.

Many Republicans also don’t support the policy. On 16 June, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AR), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement in which he criticised renewed restrictions on US citizens’ ability to travel to Cuba. Other Republicans known to be critical of the policy include Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN), Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR), Representative Ted Poe (R-TX), Representative Justin Amash (R-MI), Representative Mark Sanford (R-SC) and Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL).

Several conservative organisations and think tanks are also critical of the Trump approach, including the Cato InstituteReasonCampaign for Liberty and the Federalist.

While some dissidents in Cuba reportedly support a hardline policy approach, it is difficult to ascertain—on account of restricted access to the internet and social media in Cuba—whether the policy has any support among moderates who might be critical of the regime. However, some Cuban academics and entrepreneurs have expressed concern about the implications for Cuba of the election of Donald Trump.

Following the Trump announcement, one academic commented privately that “what happened in Miami… was imaginable”. She added, however, that it would be difficult to reverse what had hitherto been achieved in terms of bilateral engagement and closer ties between the two countries. That said, it was necessary for Cuba to continue to implement political and economic reforms; Cuba “must make deeper and better paced transformations”.

A Cuban entrepreneur commented separately that the Trump policy would impact adversely on tourism and, in particular, on individuals and small businesses involved in the provision of hospitality and accommodation in private dwellings, the so-called ‘casas particulares’. Another academic noted that while the Cuban government and many Cubans had expected the announcement, they were angered to see Trump surrounded by the “most radical members of the Miami hard-right exiles, some of [whom are] associated with the old mafia and wanted by the Cuban police”. Irrespective of whether or not this was the case, there is little doubt that the Trump announcement angered both stalwart supporters of the Cuban government and Cubans of more moderate persuasion.

The new Trump Cuba policy will be implemented through a series of regulations in coming months, the full impact of which remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the policy is another example of the isolationist approach of the current US administration and will likely enhance nationalist and anti-US sentiment among key players within the region, such as Mexico and Venezuela. In terms of its impact on business, US companies and their Cuban counterparts are taking a wait-and-see approach to ascertain how and to what extent their interests will be affected.

The new Trump foreign policy towards Cuba may have additional unintended consequences. It would provide a strategic opportunity for China to enhance its relations with, and influence in, Cuba. China is already Cuba’s third destination for exports after Canada and Venezuela, and its second source of imports after Venezuela. During a 2016 visit to Cuba, where approximately 30 bilateral agreements were signed, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke of the need to deepen their “traditional friendship”, enhance “pragmatic cooperation” and maintain “close cultural exchanges”.

China has previously taken a cautious approach to Cuba. However, in the wake of the Trump announcement, China is likely to assess potential trade and investment opportunities, which may be created by the US vacating the proverbial field, and seek to build on its existing interests, including with the provision of foreign loans.

The coming months will reveal the full extent of the rollback of the Obama administration’s initiatives to liberalise US-Cuba bilateral relations and its implications for the region and beyond. As always, the devil will be in the detail.

[Original published at http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australian_outlook/trump-repealism-rolls-back-obamas-cuba-reforms/]