On Sunday, Kim Jong Un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea celebrated its 70th anniversary with a parade. That public spectacle began an extraordinarily important month for the regime.
The parade was notable for what it did not include. To the relief of many, the event did not feature intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The North tested its first ICBM, a Hwasong-14, on July 4 last year after rolling out a long-range missile a few months before in a parade celebrating the birth of regime founder Kim Il Sung. There was also an ICBM in a parade this February.
President Donald Trump praised Kim for not showing off an ICBMs this time. “This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea,” he tweeted Sunday. “Thank you To Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!”
Yes, there is nothing like good dialogue to solve seemingly intractable geopolitical problems...or to stall a large adversary. In this particular case, it appears Kim is stalling and trying to prevent the United States from vigorously enforcing sanctions.
Since the historic June 12 summit in Singapore, the U.S. Treasury Department has issued three sets of North Korean sanctions designations, all in August and all minor. The bigger story is what the United States has not done.
In late May, Treasury did not designate almost three dozen Chinese, Russian, and other entities for violating North Korea sanctions. Furthermore, since then Trump has ignored obvious Chinese and Russian sanctions-busting.
China’s sanctions violations have been particularly open in recent months. For instance, Chinese companies have been making easily-observed coal purchases in contravention of U.N. rules. North Korean coal ships, for instance, have been spotted at the Chinese port of Longkou. There is also increased activity at the Dandong crossing, a sure sign of illegal trade.
“China has abided by neither the spirit nor the letter of sanction rules they have agreed to,” Bruce Bechtol, the author of the just-released North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa, told The National Interest. “The Chinese do not want—and never have wanted—to put pressure on North Korea’s economy.”
Sanctions-busting has even become contagious, with American ally South Korea now getting in on the act, especially with its latest plan. As Tara O of the Pacific Forum told this publication, Seoul has “announced that the South-North liaison office at the Kaesong Industrial Complex will go ahead and open prior to President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang for another meeting with Kim.” The South’s Unification Ministry last month said it was supplying electricity to the soon-to-be-opened office. Although South Korean officials disagree, providing electricity and opening the office are clear sanctions violations.
The North Koreans “are getting everything they want right now,” said Victor Cha of Georgetown University to NBC News. “The status quo is great for them.”
So it is no surprise the Kim regime is in the middle of a multi-prong “charm offensive.” The offensive means the North will do more than just keep the long-range missiles in the barn at parade time.
The offensive means Kim is also sending letters to Trump. Most recently, North Korean officials delivered a letter at the Demilitarized Zone on Thursday, and Trump, speaking to reporters on Air Force One the following day, said he believes it will be “positive.”
Moreover, South Korean envoy Chung Eui-yong, who visited Kim in Pyongyang on Wednesday, announced the North Korean leader conveyed a message of peace, assuring Washington that he “reconfirmed his commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Moreover, Kim, according to Chung, said “he’ll closely cooperate with South Korea and the U.S.”
Finally, on Sunday Kim, for the first time in five years, held the “Mass Games,” this time with a message of unification and reconciliation intended to entice Seoul into some form of confederation. Moon, eager to unify Korea, would almost certainly accept a North Korean proposal to establish a one-country-two-governments system.
Kim's apparent goal for all his moves is to build such strong links with Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow that he would become immune to new U.S. sanctions if Trump were ever to go back to his "maximum pressure" campaign. To that end, the North Korean hosted the No. 3-ranked Chinese Communist Party leader, Li Zhanshu, and the No. 3-ranked Russian leader, Valentina Matviyenko, at the Sunday parade. And Moon is scheduled to visit Pyongyang on the 18th to 20th of September. The region, this month, is finding its way to the North Korean capital.
And that brings us back to the parade. Some say it was a good sign there was an emphasis on economic development in the extravaganza. That is true, but what is nonetheless troubling is the rhetoric coming out of the regime. Kim, as is apparent from his words, has not made any clear commitment to disarm.
“As in the past, the key is ‘Korean peninsula,’ not ‘denuclearization,’ ” O told The National Interest. “If he means denuclearization of North Korea, then that’s what he needs to say. The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula means he’s placing the emphasis on South Korea, which does not have nuclear weapons.”
So what does Kim mean by denuclearization the peninsula? O, an expert in “Norkology,” is concerned. “What Kim means is the nuclear umbrella and the nuclear capability of the U.S—so the withdrawal of U.S. forces,” she told me. “He also means the nuclear capability of those around the Korean peninsula—the nuclear weapons of China and Russia. So if everyone else denuclearizes, then North Korea will do so. The real emphasis here is, of course, the withdrawal of U.S. forces and ending the alliance.”
To end the alliance, Kim realizes he needs to bend stronger powers to his will. He knows, therefore, how to smile. As the world will witness this month, he is more dangerous when he presents his friendly face than when he growls.
Kim at the moment has his friendly face on.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World . Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.