Illustration: Craig Stephens
by John Barry Kotch
by John Barry Kotch

As Trump targets Iran, North Korea’s Kim would be wise to tone down his rhetoric and lie low

  • When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il went into hiding, fearing he may end up being targeted like Saddam. As US-Iran tensions escalate now, it is worth wondering what lesson Kim Jong-un has drawn from that episode
Political developments in the Middle East invariably reverberate in the Far East. That was true in 2002 when then United States president George W. Bush declared war on “an axis of evil” consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, those states which, according to Bush, “pose a grave and growing danger” and “threaten the peace of the world” by “seeking weapons of mass destruction” – claims unsupported by intelligence and absent inspections carried out by the United Nations.
And it’s also true today that Middle Eastern political developments are resonating loudly in this region, in the wake of the drone strike that eliminated in a single stroke Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian mastermind behind regional terrorism whose demise is likely to produce more of the same.

In that earlier episode, North Korean officials bridled at their American counterparts who cited secret intelligence showing that Pyongyang was cheating by enriching uranium instead of reprocessing spent plutonium. There are two ways of producing fissile material for bombs, and uranium enrichment was barred under the 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea.

The result was a North Korean nuclear breakout and the situation that we are grappling with today, with Pyongyang having amassed a stockpile estimated at between 30 and 60 nuclear weapons.

But the more telling human tale came with the subsequent “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it sent then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il – a potential target – fleeing from Pyongyang and staying away from the capital incommunicado for several months.
He did not want to wind up in a hole similar to the one Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was eventually found hiding in by US troops who captured him. More likely than not, Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un, accompanied him on that trip, and the experience would have been seared into the memory of the young man and future leader; it may well have forged his determination to build an impregnable nuclear deterrent.
Fast forward to 2020. Under the current circumstances, Kim would be wise to delay or downplay whatever new “strategic weapon” he promised following the expiration of his year-end deadline for the US.

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The North Korean leader had probably backed himself into a corner in 2019, an unprecedented year of diplomacy which saw three meetings with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, suggesting that relations between the two Koreas would henceforth be conducted on a new plane.

There were also the three summits with US President Donald Trump (although the last one was really just a one-hour photo-op in Panmunjom), who proclaimed North Korea “all waterfront property”, a real-estate term denoting something of exceptional value, and who is the first US president predisposed to cut an economic deal with Kim.
In Singapore, the two countries pledged to “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime” and to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. In bypassing that agreement, Kim wound up in the weeds when Trump rejected his offer at the Hanoi summit to trade a partial shutdown of fissile material production for the lifting of economic sanctions.

In this regard, “a lasting and stable peace regime” would have been in the interests of both countries. For Pyongyang, this means that Washington must give serious consideration to partly or completely removing its regional nuclear deterrent. For Washington, the only basis for peace would be a meaningful North Korean denuclearisation.

This would suggest that, for whatever the reason, Kim’s goal is no longer denuclearisation. That’s if it ever was anything but the opposite: to keep the North Korean nuclear deterrent intact while bargaining for an arms control regime.

Why we have more to fear from Russia’s missile ambitions than North Korea’s

With Trump now focused on Iran and Iraq, the third member of Bush’s “axis of evil” is likely to fall from the front burner, with one key proviso: there must be no long-range missile or nuclear testing, otherwise all bets are off for “rocket man” Kim.

In short, the North Korean leader must reckon with the fact that the “imminent threat” criterion in international law (that is, the necessity for self-defence must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”, as formulated in the 19th century Caroline test) invoked by Trump remains relevant, even if unwarranted, as justification for US action against Soleimani.

Thus, it could also be invoked to justify pre-emptive action such as a drone attack on North Korean missiles targeting US bases in South Korea or Japan.

To avoid returning to the days of fire and fury, Kim would be best advised to follow jazz maestro Duke Ellington’s advice to one of his lovers: “Do nothing till you hear from me”.

John Barry Kotch is a researcher and former US State Department consultant