War Stories

Return of Rocket Man

It’s time to worry about war with North Korea again.

Kim grinning, astride a white horse, with snow-capped mountains in the background.
In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government on Oct. 16, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un rides a white horse to climb Mount Paektu, North Korea.
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

The bromance between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is fizzling, and the era of “fire and fury” may once more be upon us.

The name-calling has already returned. Earlier this month, Trump referred to Kim as “Rocket Man,” the derisive epithet he coined in 2017, when war between the two seemed frighteningly possible. North Korean officials, who had started resuming their derision of Trump, reacted with vitriol, calling his rhetoric “the relapse of the dotage of a dotard.”

Even back in April, when relations seemed sunnier, Kim gave Washington until the end of the year to drop its “hostile policy” toward North Korea. More recently, he said he’ll give Trump a “Christmas gift,” adding that Trump’s behavior will determine what sort of present it will be.

Recent activity at a long-dormant satellite launch center suggests that the North Koreans are testing a new sort of rocket engine, perhaps in preparation for the launching of a new missile, possibly one of sufficient range to hit the United States. So far this year, North Korea has tested 13 short-range missiles, which Trump has brushed away (though the South Korean and Japanese governments are more concerned). But the renewed testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, for the first time in 2½ years, would raise even Trump’s eyebrows.

Trump, though, is still starry-eyed about his odd friendship with Kim. He told reporters earlier this month, “I’d be surprised if North Korea acted hostilely. [Kim] knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that. … I think he’d like to see something happen”—presumably “something” that would promote peace and thus give Trump a triumph worth celebrating in a reelection campaign.

But precisely for this reason, Kim may calculate that he has more bargaining leverage than ever—and, therefore, has less need to compromise.

Miscalculation on both sides scuttled the last Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February. Seeing it as the sequel to their warm get-together in Singapore the previous June, both leaders came to the table with a maximalist stance and no backup plan. Kim, thinking that Trump was desperate for a deal—any deal—offered to shut down one of his nuclear reactors (but not any of the others) if the U.S. lifted all economic sanctions. Trump, thinking Kim would do him a favor for the sake of their friendship, offered to lift sanctions if North Korea dismantled its entire nuclear program. Neither side budged, and the summit broke up before a scheduled lunch, much less a joint declaration or press conference. Talks between the two sides’ midlevel diplomats began a few months later, but went nowhere.

The logjam stems from the fact that both leaders are, in their own ways, delusional. Trump seems to believe—he has said as much many times—that Kim pledged in Singapore to get rid of his nuclear weapons and will do so at some point. Therefore, there’s no reason to worry about anything else the North Koreans might be doing.

In fact, though, Kim pledged to do so no such thing. The joint statement that the two leaders signed in Singapore said North Korea would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But promising to “work toward” a goal is different from accomplishing that goal or even harboring the intent to do so. And “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” means more than the disarmament of North Korea. As Kim’s officials have said, it means removing all nuclear weapons—including any U.S. planes and vessels capable of carrying nuclear weapons—from any place within striking distance of Korea. (It’s unclear whether this would mean dismantling the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, which could hit North Korea, but, by this logic, they could claim that it does.)

In other words, the North Koreans are not going to get rid of their nuclear weapons. They haven’t even committed to taking the first step toward the slightest reduction of their nuclear arsenal—which would be to itemize just how many weapons they have now, and where they are, so that inspectors could verify the cuts as they’re made.

As for Kim, he seems to believe that he doesn’t have to make any concessions in exchange for the grandest of rewards. Trump has encouraged this illusion by touting Kim’s greatness and trustworthiness (like Vladimir Putin and the Saudi royal family, Kim must sometimes shake his head in wonder that he’s dealing with an American president who’s such an easy mark) and by so clearly signaling his desperation for a diplomatic triumph (his talk of a Nobel Peace Prize a while back was only one of several clues).

However, Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution and author of a forthcoming book titled Becoming Kim Jong Un, says that the main obstacle is Kim. Kim’s grandfather and father also engaged in brinkmanship with larger foreign powers. But they knew the limits of their leverage; his father, Kim Jong-il, in particular knew when the game had played out and when to make a deal. Kim Jong-un seems much less aware or shrewd.

“Kim could not have had it any better these last two years,” Pak says. “He had a South Korean president eager for improved relations, a U.S. president who wanted good relations and who was criticizing the alliances. But Kim squandered it. He wants all or nothing. It’s just the way he is. People have kowtowed toward him his entire life.”

When John Bolton was Trump’s national security adviser, even a more pliable North Korean leader would have had little room for maneuver. Bolton was the one who insisted that Pyongyang dismantle all of its nuclear weapons before Washington lifted sanctions. But since Bolton’s departure, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea and nominee for deputy secretary of state, who has studied what has worked and not worked in negotiations with North Korea, has taken a more flexible stance. In the current rounds of talks, Biegun has offered a declaration formally ending the Korean War (which would give Pyongyang some legal standing for demanding a thinning of the U.S. presence in the region) as well as phased and mutual gestures (the U.S. lifts some sanctions, North Korea dismantles some weapons; the U.S. lifts some more, North Korea dismantles some more). The North Koreans have ignored or rejected the proposals. Biegun traveled to South Korea this week, hoping to arrange a meeting with his North Korean counterparts.*

Earlier this month, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, took his country’s denuclearization pledge off the table and denounced the talks with Biegun as a time-stalling tactic by the Trump administration.

Clearly Kim Jong-un has decided to ignore the working-level talks altogether and is instead calling for another summit with Trump, preferably in Pyongyang, where Kim could put on a massive, color-coordinated parade like nothing he’d ever seen. (Trump’s love of a good parade is well known.) The premise is that Trump would roll over more easily one-on-one than in a roomful of bureaucrats. There is precedent for thinking so: In Singapore, besides signing an empty declaration, Trump informally agreed to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea. In his summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he openly endorsed the Russian leader’s assurances over his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions about the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election.

But, as the impasse at Hanoi showed, Trump may not be as pliant as Kim assumes. Kim above all wants sanctions lifted, but Trump hasn’t relaxed them in the slightest. Nor has he leapt to take up Kim’s invitation to Pyongyang (though one can imagine him doing so, if the impeachment pressures start to weigh heavily). One distinction about dealing with Kim, as opposed to Putin or the Saudi royals, may be that nobody in Trump’s entourage—not in the government or Congress, or among his friends at Fox News—favors giving breaks to North Korea without major concessions on nuclear disarmament.

So nothing is likely to improve on this front. The more nerve-racking question is whether things might get worse. Trump has always waved off concerns about North Korean aggressiveness—its short-range missile tests, its resumption of heated rhetoric—by noting that the country has abided by Kim’s moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear weapons tests. What if Kim revokes those restraints? What if he test-fires an intercontinental ballistic missile (or a satellite that stays aloft for as long as one) or sets off another nuclear explosive? Both scenarios, especially the first one, are plausible. Will Trump, suddenly realizing that Little Rocket Man has been stringing him along, lash out, make threats, which prompt counterthreats, which trigger war? (It wouldn’t be the first time that bluff and escalation have led to a conflict that neither side wanted.)

This is the danger, and it’s more plausible than might otherwise be the case because, at the moment, Trump is all too confident that everything’s just fine, and Kim is all too confident that he can get away with anything.

Another troublesome fact is that, in all its confrontations with foreign powers, the Kim dynasty has been keen to heighten the drama; that’s how its otherwise impoverished regime has survived amid such strong neighbors. This is a dangerous game, and it’s particularly dangerous now, when peace depends on Kim acting less crazy or Trump becoming more responsible. World peace should not have to depend on such improbable developments.

Correction, Dec. 17, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Biegun attempted to arrange a meeting with his North Korean counterparts in Japan. It was in South Korea.