A Discussion with North Korea Experts in September 2017
On September 19, 2017, President Trump of the United States warned that it would “totally destroy North Korea” in his speech to the UN General Assembly. Within a day, on the 21st, in Kim Jong-un’s own statement he retaliated saying that North Korea would “consider with seriousness taking a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
In Kim Jong-un and Trump’s war of words, the world was able to witness an emotional dispute including statements that should never leave the lips of a state leader- with Kim Jong-un calling Trump a “dotard”, “rogue” and a “gangster”, and Trump calling Kim Jong-un a “madman” and “rocket man.”
At the same time, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho showed that North Korea was more than capable of ‘conducting a hydrogen test in the pacific’, while the US did not just stop with ‘words’ but with ‘actions’ as a U.S. B-1B Lancer heavy bomber flew in international airspace off North Korea’s eastern coast on the night of September 23rd.
Moreover, on September 23, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho stated in his speech to the UN General Assembly that “[North Korea] will take preventative measures by merciless preemptive action in case the US and its vassal forces show any sign of conducting a kind of “decapitating” operation”
However, looking at Kim Jong-un’s statement and the recent domestic situation in North Korea I do not think that North Korea will do anything so suicidal like a ‘madman’ and launch missiles into the pacific or test any hydrogen bombs.
2. The Background and Peculiarities of Kim Jong-un’s Statement
2.1. North Korea’s response shows that it is based on Kim Jong-un’s personal emotions and shock from Trump’s bold statements.
Unlike Trump, who can say whatever he wants to say, Kim Jong-un is not simply the leader of North Korea’s Party and State but is the centre of deification for the North Korean people.
As was done by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un also makes sure that his words in front of state officials are always like the ‘words of a Suryeong’ before they are released.
When Kim Jong-il was in power, even when he called up Kang Sok-ju, the First Vice Foreign Minister and gave orders in a crude and ill-mannered way, all the ‘words’ were passed on to the diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a respectful manner.
But the remarks made in Kim Jong-un’s statements this time round were ones that should never leave the lips of a Suryeong’s lips.
2.2. It is highly likely that North Korea’s response was not a result of deep negotiations amongst the relevant parties in North Korea but rather a decision made solely by Kim Jong-un.
When North Korea makes an important public statement, there are two approaches it can take.
One approach is for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to report ‘policy measures related to the issue of XXX’ to Kim Jong-un, receive feedback and report it to the public. In this case, it usually takes two or three days to receive approval from Kim Jong-un.
In other cases, even before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had a chance to report to Kim Jong-un, there are instances in which he has watched foreign news at his own office or home and called up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see if they have made any measures and pressure them if they have not.
However, this happens very rarely.
If this is a case in which Kim Jong-un took the lead and called the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and gave direct orders, actions should have been taken within hours while Kim Jong-un was waiting in the office, then he would also have made a decision straight away on these proposed actions.
In this case, the fact that Kim Jong-un released a statement on the 21st, not even a day after Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly, shows that Kim Jong-un did not leave his seat but waited for a draft of the statement, ratified it and took the photo straight away.
In other words, Kim Jong-un went all in on this day.
After Kim Jong-un’s statement was released, it was also announced soon after that he had visited a farm. However, a closer look at the timeline shows that Kim Jong-un had not conducted a farm visit after the statement, but rather the farm visit had happened a few days before. The reporting of the farm visit straight after the release of the statement is a strategy to show Kim Jong-un in a more leisurely fashion and create a ‘strong’ image of him.
2.3. The statement was also publicized in a way that had never been done so in North Korea’s history which shows that it was a ‘top-down decision’ made by Kim Jong-un.
This was an unprecedented case in which Kim Jong-un’s position as the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea was used to represent North Korea.
While the State Affairs Commission has been stated to be the most powerful department it has never been stated that the Chairman is the head of the state.
Until now, North Korea’s constitution has stated that the head of North Korea is the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. As such, Kim Yong-nam the President of the Presidium receive credentials from foreign ambassadors and all credentials sent out by North Korean ambassadors are done so in Kim Yong-nam’s name. Right now it is unknown how many public activities will be done in Kim Jong-un’s name to represent North Korea.
However, important issues like this can not be decided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone and unless the First Vice-Minister at least calls Kim Jong-un beforehand it is not something that Ministry can handle alone.
As it is an issue that is related to the constitution, as the legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly would need to be consulted beforehand and thus is not an issue that can be settled in a day. The fact that all these complicated steps were skipped, it signifies that it was a measure taken through Kim Jong-un’s ‘top-down decision-making.’
2.4. Looking at the current internal situation in North Korea, it appears that rather than preparing a hard-line response to the US they are focused on soothing the angered Kim Jong-un in their ‘excessive loyalty.’
In New York, Ri Yong-ho delivered hard-line threats, to the surprise of even North Koreans, that North Korea would conduct a hydrogen test across the Pacific Ocean.
I am sure that each department including the party, military and government are meeting every day, but at this moment no one can really tell at this time what type of hard-line measures will be taken. In fact, the WPK has even said that members of the so-called ‘Party Headquarters’ are meeting.
There are few people that are aware of the fact that there is a separate secretive department in the Central Committee known as the ‘Party Headquarters (본부당).’ According to the Charter of the WPK, the WPK is the highest body of the party but there is no mention of the ‘Party Headquarters.’ The classified department which is responsible for the surveillance and control of each department is omitted in the Charter.
I can imagine that everybody felt pressured to convey how they had been meeting and as a means of showing their loyalty to Kim Jong-un, and so presented ideas that should never have been suggested in the first place.
As Kim Jong-un ordered the creation of a hard-line response, there is a high chance that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that showing North Korea’s ability of conducting a hydrogen test in the Pacific to threaten the US. If the Foreign Ministry did not suggest that Kim Jong-un should respond with a ‘verbal bomb’ in this tense atmosphere, it would be criticized as a low-grade department.
When looking at the current domestic situation in North Korea, the regime is going all-out to bring about hostility in the North Korean troops and people. North Korea is raising feelings of hostility towards the United States and South Korea as a means of preventing people from deserting the system or blocking any feelings of agitation against Kim Jong-un. By revealing the hard-line responses using Kim Jong-un’s name, North Korea is attempting to stir up a sense of survival mode in the face of a crisis.
When looking at it from the North Korean people’s perspective, Trump’s message at the UN General Assembly of “totally destroy[ing] North Korea” made it seem like that the US has declared that it will kill all North Korean people.
As a result, North Koreans will probably become more hostile and there is a chance they will all gather around Kim Jong-un for survival and support him.
At the end of the day, Kim Jong-un is going to use Trump’s words to his advantage to create hostility and fear towards North Korea while at the same time stablising his own leadership.
3. An evaluation of North Korea’s next actions
3.1. While North Korea has released an ‘ultra hard-line response’ in Kim Jong-un’s name, the chances are low that it will come out with an immediate provocation.
North Korea’s defense industry is not in a position in which it is able to produce an engine that can continue to test ICBM launches.
North Korea conducted an ICBM engine test in March 2017 and within few months conducted a ICBM test.
It took almost 9 months after the Fourth Nuclear Test in January 2016 to conduct the Fifth Nuclear Test in September. It then took almost a year until the Sixth Nuclear Test in September 2017.
No matter how quickly North Korea moves, it will not be able to finish its Seventh Nuclear Test before the end of 2017.
After the Sixth Nuclear Test, a 4.6 tremor was detected and the fact that there was a cave-in at Mt. Mantap shows that Punggye-ri test site may have been destroyed.
Looking at Kim Jong-un’s personality and his obsession with speedy nuclear development shows that dates for nuclear or missile tests have not been decided but rather they are conducting them whenever the time comes.
Kim Jong-un is also well aware of the fact that with North Korea’s current resources, it will not be able to survive much longer with these economic sanctions and has realised that he will have no choice but to return to the negotiation table.
3.2. Even if Kim Jong-un was to continue with the provocations, he will never cross the US’ ‘Red Line.’
By sending missiles over Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Kim Jong-un is showing North Korea’s capability of conducting a missile test near Guam, and sneaking in front of the US’ tough response.
However, Kim Jong-un is also well-aware that if he experiments with missiles over the Pacific Ocean or near Guam- the US will not just stand by.