North Korea Is Testing Trump as Summit Approaches
Following North Korea these days gives even the most seasoned observer whiplash as both sides seemingly shift from one extreme to another sometimes in twenty-four hours. Yet one thing is certain. North Korea is testing United States President Donald Trump to see how much bad faith he is willing to tolerate in the name of engagement. The Trump administration must see through North Korean leader's Kim Jong-un's games and insist that he make a strategic decision to denuclearize followed by tangible and irreversible actions towards that end goal.
Kim is using a well-worn playbook that his father and grandfather used to great success. Namely, promise denuclearization while insisting on phased implementation, which is code for backloading North Korean obligations and front loading concessions from the U.S. and its allies. It's an approach that's been remarkably successful for Pyongyang, but a failure for Washington.
Another aspect of North Korea’s modus operandi is to continue sanctions busting and proliferation activities during negotiations, even while the U.S. shows restraint. Unfortunately, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is a willing participant in this game. Following Kim’s second summit with Xi in early May, Pyongyang’s rhetoric took a darker turn and North Korean workers, and seafood has returned to the border city of Dandong, signaling China’s looser implementation of sanctions. Japan also detected a ship-to-ship transfer involving a Chinese vessel, a practice that violates United Nations sanctions that Beijing supported. Additional reporting also noted the return of a North Korean ship to a Chinese coal handling port, suggesting that Beijing likely is violating UN sanctions on coal exports, thereby generating revenue that Pyongyang can use for its weapons programs.
Beyond these visible fissures in the maximum pressure campaign, North Korea continues its close relationship with Syria. Last week, Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad declared that he would visit Pyongyang to meet with Kim. Assad and Kim have worked together on weapons of mass destruction programs at least since North Korea built a nuclear reactor in Syria that Israel destroyed in 2007. In addition, the UN Panel of Experts earlier this year detailed that Pyongyang and Damascus are cooperating on chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. The Trump administration should draw a bright red line that continued Syria-North Korea collaboration will end U.S.-North Korea diplomatic efforts.
North Korea also increased its cyber-attacks against South Korea even after Pyongyang pledged to “completely cease all hostile acts” “in every domain” in the Panmunjom Declaration in April. Also, Pyongyang's apparent goodwill gesture of destroying its nuclear weapons test site did not destroy the tunnels and is likely reversible.