By Max S. Kim*
What is the most significant outcome of the two Trump-Kim summits? I would say it is Trump’s success in singling out North Korea from the bad cycle of ineffective six-party talks and securing the opportunity to press Kim at a one-on-one summit.
The world has now watched how Kim and his South Korean cronies crafted the fake narrative for nuclear disarmament, and how Kim and South Korea’s Moon formed a pro-Beijing alliance and tried to reduce the American influence in the region on behalf of China’s Xi.
Last spring Kim was said to express his “willingness to denuclearize” to the South’s presidential delegates, who then visited the White House and delivered Kim’s word. That “commitment from Kim” started year-long bilateral denuclearization talks and resulted in two summit meetings with Trump.
But Kim finally showed his true colors. At the Hanoi summit, Kim was caught off guard and unexpectedly confronted by Trump with evidence of North Korea’s hidden nuclear facilities continuously operated even after their first summit in Singapore. Kim then refused Trump’s demand for complete denuclearization. Trump walked and the Hanoi summit ended abruptly.
Trump however got two birds with one stone. He exposed Kim’s denuclearization deception. He also exposed South Korea’s Moon Jae-in as Kim’s co-conspirator in their plot against the U.S. As warned repeatedly by Sen. Graham, these liars will pay dearly for playing Trump.
Has North Korea ever had a plan for nuclear disarmament? No. The regime never had one. What is at stake is a military issue and not a business one, and we need to understand that. When we consider what North Korea is worth for China’s geopolitical interests, the answer is already clear. China’s Xi has armed Kim with ICBMs and nuclear capabilities: The last four of the six nuclear tests by North Korea have all been conducted under Xi’s rule. Kim has visited Beijing four times—three times last year and once this year—but Xi never visited Pyongyang. That shows who the boss is.
Kim is Xi’s henchman. But how does Xi ensure that the nuclear arms and ICBMs he helped Kim to develop will not be used against China? Interestingly, right before the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, certain incidents were unfolded synchronously and rather unexpectedly, and they appear to provide some answer to this question.
On Feb. 22, the North Korean embassy in Spain was attacked. The assailants, who were Asian men, grabbed the embassy’s computers and cell phones and ran. The Madrid police offered help but the embassy declined. The incident was not released to the media for five days until Feb. 27. Kim began his land travel by train on Feb. 23 and arrived at Hanoi on Feb. 26, which was the 27th Madrid standard time. Is that a coincidence?
The temporal gap of the robbery and its public report had perfect alignment with the duration of Kim’s train ride, and that suggests otherwise. It turns out North Korea’s ambassador to Spain and Stephen Biegun’s counterpart in the denuclearization talk is a man named Kim Hyok Chol, who was involved in the North’s secret nuclear arms deals and projects. Clearly, the assailants must have sought for the computer and phone records in the deals.
On Feb. 26, Japan News Network aired footage of Kim having a predawn cigarette break at the Nanning train station in Southern China while strolling and talking with his aides. The video was taken in close proximity to Kim by someone in his delegation or by an outsider waiting in the area on leaked intelligence. This was an unprecedented real-time release of Kim’s move.
That indicates a serious security breach, implying that Kim’s safety can be on the line. It is not clear why Kim chose 2,000-mile land travel to Vietnam and why North Korea’s state-run media let the news of his summit out unusually early and with much publicity, right after his departure from Pyongyang.
On Feb. 28, a veiled organization called Cheollima Civil Defense declared a new government-in-exile for North Korea to be led by Kim Han Sol. CCD condemned the current regime, called for its overthrow, and claimed that Kim Han Sol should be the heir apparent since he is the first-born son of Kim Jong Nam (who was murdered at Kuala Lumpur Airport last year).
But their reference to the youngest survivor of the Kim family as the regime’s legitimate heir has an implication that CCD is most likely a pro-Beijing group. Kim Jong Nam led Office 39—the regime’s secretive financial arm that manages black funds from arms deals, drugs, counterfeit, and other illegal activities—and members of this office have had strong ties with Beijing.
Who organized these events? Why did they occur simultaneously with the Trump-Kim summit? Much remains to be seen and it is not clear whether they were orchestrated by the same hand. But they are certainly not coincident. They have an intended message: A shadowy group exerts power and North Korea is not in Kim’s control.
Maybe the group has direct ties with China’s Xi and serves as a watchtower over political activity in North Korea. Since China has helped North Korea to develop nuclear missiles, it is natural that Xi must keep Kim on a tight leash and make sure North Korea is in China’s control. Thus, the existence of a veiled power in North Korea comes as no surprise. But the timing of its public showing is significant. Who the message was really directed at also remains ambiguous.
Interestingly, neither Kim nor Moon had any doubts that the Hanoi summit could fall through. What led to their overconfidence? The aftermath of the diplomatic failure is expected to be seen widely in the two Koreas in the coming months. The midnight press conference in Hanoi, hastily arranged by North Korea’s top two diplomats, already showed tremors visibly. Foreign Minister Ri admitted that their “top-down approach” (i.e. Trump-Kim summits) was premature and costly and said that they would instead look for working-level talks in the future. It is rare that North Korea acknowledges failure publicly. It is even more startling that Vice Foreign Minister Choi commented on the diplomatic incompetence of their demigod supreme leader’s “difficulty with understanding the American way of diplomacy.”
North Korea does not have much time. Its financial and economic situations can only get worse and will quickly deteriorate under the U.S. sanctions. On top of that, Kim Jong Un has grave and unpredictable health issues. A week before the Hanoi summit, State Secretary Pompeo made a significant remark that Pyongyang also may fall like the Berlin Wall one day.
How will this game end? Obviously, the one with more options and better resources will win out.
*Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.