A little-noticed statement last week by the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un indicates that no more arms talks will be held anytime soon and even that the deal Kim offered at last year’s summit with President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam—to shut down one nuclear reactor in exchange for the lifting of all U.S. sanctions since 2016—is now off the table.
Kim Yo-jong, first vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee and a woman of steadily growing power who has spoken on her older brother’s behalf several times in recent months, said on Friday that another summit with Trump would be “unpractical” and “not serve us at all.”
At least one wire story about her statement, released by the Korean Central News Agency, reported that she suggested such a meeting might still happen, but this isn’t quite the case. Rather, she said that a summit—or even the continuation of talks between midlevel diplomats—would happen only if the U.S. made “major changes” in its “attitude” and ended its “hostile policy” toward North Korea.
To North Korea, as its diplomats have long made clear, ending America’s “hostile policy” would mean withdrawing all U.S. troops and nuclear-capable forces—in other words, pretty much all air and naval forces—from northeast Asia, including South Korea and Japan. (Some have interpreted the phrase to include almost all U.S. nuclear weapons, even the missiles and bombers based in the United States, since they have the range to hit North Korea.) In short, the condition is a nonstarter, and North Koreans are invoking it as a way to provoke cleavages between Washington and its allies in the region.
The Dear Sister—as she is sometimes called—said that even if Trump suddenly embraced the deal that he rejected in Hanoi, it would be too late. Her brother has “completely ruled out” the idea of trading disarmament for sanctions relief, she said, adding, “We are fully capable of living under any sanctions.” She repeated this point a few times. “I have to point out clearly,” she stated toward the end of her remarks, that “when we refer to [the need for] major changes” from the United States, “it does not mean the lifting of sanctions.” It means the end of “hostile policies.”
It is unclear why this change is coming now. At the time of the Hanoi summit, which took place in February 2019, North Korea’s economy was in abysmal shape, and it hasn’t improved since. As Daniel Sneider pointed out in Tokyo Business Today, its economy has probably faltered further, since the border with China—North Korea’s No. 1 trading partner—has been closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
The Kims may be overplaying their hand, believing that Trump is desperate to take a deal—any deal—in order to tout himself as a peacemaker on the eve of the coming presidential elections. On July 9, the day before Kim’s statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he and Trump would welcome another summit. Stephen Biegun, Trump’s emissary to North Korea (who is now also Pompeo’s deputy), called for a renewal of negotiations. The Kims pay attention to such remarks. The Dear Sister said in her statement that she had recently “kill[ed] breakfast time” by watching TV news reports of “the changes of the Americans’ mind-set” about the possibility of a summit.
Kim Jong-un misjudged Trump’s desire for a deal in Hanoi, coming to the table with one offer—to freeze activity at the Yongbyon reactor in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions. Trump didn’t take the offer, in part because he’d been briefed that Yongbyon wasn’t North Korea’s only nuclear facility. According to John Bolton’s recent memoir, Trump implored Kim to put even one more concession on the table—for instance, a freeze on the production of long-range ballistic missiles—but Kim refused.
Kim Yo-jong’s remarks confirm what many skeptics of an arms deal have said for years—that North Korea has no intention of giving up all its nuclear weapons, under any circumstances. She noted “the unique friendly relations” between her brother and Trump, but stressed that, owing to the “U.S. hostilities,” North Korea has no choice but to “strengthen and steadily increase our practical capabilities”—presumably meaning North Korea’s nuclear forces.
On a more assuring note, she said, “We do not have the slightest intention to pose a threat to the United States.” However, she also said that, “on the eve of presidential elections,” North Korea might yet deliver its long-promised “Christmas gift” to America, adding that this “totally depends on how the U.S. behaves.” Toward the end of last year, well after the breakdown in Hanoi, Kim said he’d give Trump a “Christmas gift,” which many feared might be the resumption of intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Nothing happened, but the Dear Sister said the gift might still be delivered if Trump or another American “spits out ill-disposed words” and “clings to useless things such as economic pressure or military threats towards us.”
Her statement is odd in several ways. First, it is written in a very informal manner, almost like a rambling conversation, not at all in the stiff style of most of the country’s official pronouncements. Second, it is attributed to her, not to her brother, though she says that he authorized its contents. She is known to be a rising power; during the three weeks when Kim Jong-un was unseen in public and rumored to be dead earlier this year, she appeared as the face of the ruling family. But it is very unusual for her to be issuing a policy statement of this magnitude, especially now that her brother is back in the public eye. (He is still not seen in public as much as before, raising questions about his health.)
She has also spoken much more harshly than her brother has, at least in the past year or so, about the United States and even more about South Korea. Michael Green, former director of Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, now a professor at Georgetown University, said in an email today, “There was probably a group in North Korea that warned [Kim Jong-un] that he would never get the magical deal Trump was promising.” Now that they’ve been proved right, Kim is presenting “a more explicit version of what they probably intended all along—continued nuclear weapons expansion.” It may be that Kim Yo-jong is part of this more hard-line group.
So is Kim Jong-un about to take a wild risk? (Trump has given him leave to do just about anything but test a missile with the range to hit the United States.) Or is he once again misjudging Trump’s desperation for a deal—any deal? Either way, history is chock-full of miscalculations sliding into escalations, which trigger further escalations. And both of these men are capable of desperate actions—Kim to keep his regime from collapsing, Trump to win reelection. It could be a tense autumn.