The media continues to get the President’s North Korean peace initiative all wrong: in some cases this is due to laziness, Washington-centric group-think, and just plain ignorance. In other cases, it is quite deliberate. Take, for example, the recent “news” that Trump canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s scheduled trip to Pyongyang due to a “belligerent” letter sent by the North Koreans to the White House. What is the source of this alleged development? A single report in the Washington Post put out there by one Josh Rogin, not a reporter but an opinion columnist with strong neoconservative inclinations. Rogin attributes this information to “two senior administration officials” while admitting that “[t]he exact contents of the message are unclear.”
We don’t know what the letter said, and so we don’t know why Trump canceled the trip. In short, we don’t know anything. That’s the “news,” folks.
So what really happened? Why the cancellation?
We can’t know for certain, of course, since these things are usually kept under wraps, and yet we can speculate if we have the right context, which is something none of these esteemed Korea “experts” and “analysts” – who are often proxies for special interests – provide. What we usually get is either complete misinformation, as in the case of the “belligerent letter,” or else a priori speculation along the lines of “Why would Kim Jong-un give up his nuclear weapons after seeing what happened to Qaddafi?”
A priori arguments are fine in the realm of economics, but they don’t work at all in the foreign policy realm. We need empirical evidence, and to get that it’s necessary to penetrate a famously opaque North Korea and get a handle on what Kim and the rest of the North Korean leadership want to get out of the negotiations. And, more importantly, we have to ask ourselves how well do the lords of Pyongyang understand the dynamics of American politics, which will ultimately determine US policy?
The answer to this last question, it turns out, is pretty damn well, if the North Korean media is any indication. As reported in one of the few reliable news sources that specialize in North Korea, 38north.org, the North Koreans are basically wondering if Trump is in charge back home:
“There are recent signs that Kim sees trouble ahead for the US-part of his initiatives. An extraordinary article in Rodong Sinmun on August 18 absolves not only President Trump, but also Secretary Pompeo and, indeed, the entire US negotiating team from blame for the failure of the July negotiations, suggesting that “oppositional factional forces” in the US were the culprit. That criticism is clearly aimed at John Bolton, though it never mentions him by name. Beyond Bolton, however, the article for the first time raises the larger issue of the president’s embattled overall political position.”
Unlike the “mainstream” media, 38north.org quotes directly from the official voice of the regime, Rodong Sinmun:
“Congress is tackling the president’s feet, the judicial branch is grabbing him by the collar, and news media are bashing him. [in the past]…infighting between vested interests inside US politics did more damage than differences of opinions between North Korea and the United States did. We see it as a higher priority to straighten out fragmented and messed-up US politics than a quick improvement in North Korea-US relations, which is important.”
The North Koreans are wondering if Trump can deliver – and if he’ll even be in the Oval Office much longer. “Fragmented and messed-up US politics” is synonymous with the possibility that the President may be impeached by a Democratic-controlled Congress, depending on which way the midterm elections go.
Kim is thinking long-term, and the stakes are high. His new policy of “everything for the economy” is a major turnaround in the “Juche” ideology that has displaced traditional Marxist-Leninist thought in North Korea. Indeed, Kim’s “economy first” program is a complete nullification of the old ideology, which tried to build a communist society in complete isolation from the rest of the world. This project was bound to fail, and now Kim and his supporters see no reason to pretend otherwise: they want to link up to the global economy, the way China has.
However, if a rapprochement with South Korea and peace with the United States is only a temporary phenomenon, to be rolled back by whomever takes Trump’s place (Pence? A Democrat in 2020?) Kim’s reversal of North Korea’s isolationist stance is not sustainable. Which is why Rodong Sinmun is among the President’s most intransigent – and perceptive – defenders. Get a load of this:
“President Trump has a ‘dream,’ which is about achieving the epochal cause of improving North Korea-US relations and establishing world peace, but he has too many enemies.
“His administration and even his advisors are sleeping in the same bed with the president but dreaming different dreams. They are speaking and acting in a way that is inconsistent with the president’s wish, and they are misleading facts to blur the president’s eyes and ears and steering him toward making unintended decisions.
“President Trump made the ‘fantastic meeting’ come true, something that no other president in US history was able to do, and earned cheers from the world and great support from the public because, as the president himself said, he acted according to his decision and wish, while standing firm against the opposition factions’ offensives and taking what he hears from his advisors with a grain of salt.”
The North Koreans sound like hard-line Trump supporters who bemoan the President’s seeming inability to fulfill his campaign promises. Next they’ll be retweeting Ann Coulter’s complaints about “Where’s that Wall?” My favorite part of all this is their exhortation to Pompeo to “stick with his principles”!
“Secretary of State Pompeo, for his part, must stick with his principles and guts instead of getting forced into ‘an unfortunate fate,’ sternly smash the opposition factions’ unjust and foolish claims, and exercise wisdom and negotiating skills as the top diplomat of the United States in name and substance to make the president’s wish come true.”
That’s right, Pompeo, make the President’s wish come true – and you better get cracking if you know what’s good for you.
The 38north.org piece raises a number of fascinating questions, one of which is whether we are witnessing the North Korean equivalent of a debate over how to approach the United States. The author contrasts the editorial line of Rodong Sinmum with the recent statements of the Foreign Ministry: the ministry seems to be under the control of the more traditionalist military-oriented faction, if indeed the North can be said to have definable factions (that would be big news). Alongside indications that there is a major shakeup coming in the North Korean leadership, the idea that the North is actually having a public discussion about all this seems to confirm my theory that glasnost is taking hold in Pyongyang.
Now that we’ve filled in the essential background that we almost never get in the “mainstream” media, perhaps I can shed some light on the actual reasons why the Pompeo visit was postponed, and perhaps even on the contents of the North Korean letter.
My best guess – yes, it’s a guess, but at least it’s an educated one – is that the North Koreans are genuinely worried that Trump is not in control of his own government (true) and may soon be on the way out. Did the letter suggest that perhaps it might be best to wait until after the midterm elections to send Pompeo back to Pyongyang? We may never know, but, given the context outlined above, it’s a lot more plausible than the tale of the “belligerent” letter.
Our ignorance of how North Korea works is apparently not matched by their knowledge of American politics, which seems both extensive and perceptive. Not to mention absolutely necessary. The risk Kim Jong-un is taking cannot be exaggerated: he is willing to junk the North Korean system and his nukes if he’s allowed a place at the global table – and Trump is the only person who wants to take him up on his bet. If the President falls, or is so paralyzed politically that he cannot make a deal, Kim would pay an enormous price. If indeed there was a “belligerent letter,” then perhaps this belligerence was directed at the President’s enemies.
The Rogin column averred that a big obstacle to denuclearization is the failure of the United States to agree to a formal end to the Korean war – we only have an armistice, at this point, which South Korea never signed. A peace treaty never happened: technically, the two sides are still at war. Yet the 38north.org piece cites the supremely authoritative Rodong Sinmum as stating that such a declaration is only an unimportant “political” formality. There’s another fake news item debunked.
Trump’s desire to finally end this ancient and lucrative conflict, which keeps the money flowing to the Pentagon and its attendant military contractors, is part of what his enemies in the national security bureaucracy find deeply offensive. Their gravy train is about to come to an end! This is nothing less than “treason”!
The North Koreans are no dummies: they know a regime change operation when they see one. As they watch our Deep State go after a democratically elected President whose hopes for peace complement their own, the North Koreans are waiting to see if Trump survives. I can’t say that I blame them.