They say it is only in times of difficulty when you truly know who your true friends are. Well, in the world of high-stakes geopolitics, it’s a matter of knowing who, at the very least, has an interest in a strongman remaining alive, when too many are too eager to see him dead. Among the most revealing episodes during the recent brouhaha over Kim Jung-un’s misreported death last month was the reaction of the South Korean government and, more crucially, President Donald Trump.
In the past, especially when South Korea was under hawkish leadership, any bad news about the pesky regime to the north of 38th parallel would usually come from Seoul. This time, however, the South Korean government was the first to vehemently reject the premature and ultimately inaccurate news about the North Korean supreme leader.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul was quick to claim that they were “aware of Kim Jong Un’s location,” that the Kim Jung-un was on a de facto self-quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He also stated that there is “enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments.”
Perhaps even more interesting was Trump’s reaction to premature news of Kim’s alleged demise. When asked about the North Korean leader’s condition in late-April, the U.S. president was quick to “wish him well” and emphasize how they have “a very good relationship.”
Crucially, Trump underscored why Kim’s wellbeing is important to him: “I’ve said it and I’ve said it many times, if somebody else were in this position right now we would be at war with North Korea ... So I just have to say to Kim Jong Un, I wish him very, you know, good luck.”
No wonder then, once it became clear the Kim was alive, though not too well, following a rare public appearance after weeks of seclusion, the American president seemed relieved, stating how “I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!”
The fact of the matter is that both Trump and the Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea have an interest in political stability in Pyongyang and, by extension, Kim’s wellbeing. As Russian President Vladimir Putin once put it, the greatest challenge in authoritarian societies is the question of succession. For all his imperfections and brutality, Kim Jung-un represents a modicum of certainty, if not pragmatic openness to long-term détente with the West.
From my understanding, partly based on conversations with North Korean officials, the Kim regime also has an interest in maintaining its diplomatic rapport with both the Moon administration and President Trump. They know very well that the Trump-Moon duo for peace is a fortuitous historical anomaly, presenting a rare geopolitical opportunity that may evaporate as soon as a different leader is elected in either The Blue House or, more importantly, the White House.
Thus, the North Koran strategy is to bet on the endurance of the two dovish administrations, while gradually building up its own deterrence capability to hedge against imponderables in the two democracies. This means that Pyongyang has all the reason to maintain its nuclear capability for now and flex its muscle through short-to-medium range missile tests. But, that also means Pyongyang is consciously stopping one step just short of an extremely provocative move, including another nuclear bomb test or firing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which could weaken the doves’ influence in Seoul and Washington.
Empowering the hawkish elements in South Korea or provoking the Trump administration’s more aggressive instincts is not in North Korea’s interest. So, expect Pyongyang to stick to a delicate strategy of “calibrated provocation,” projecting strength and resolve without completely upending the tenuous rapprochement with Seoul and the U.S. And surely, North Korea will bet on a Trump re-election, thus it might want to hold its horses until November.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author. His forthcoming book is The Indo-Pacific Age: US, China and the New Global Struggle for Mastery.