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How a series of strategic mistakes have forced Kim Jong Un into a corner, By Andrei Lankov
After years alienating China, North Korea might soon have no choice but to cave in to the U.S.
The North Korean leadership has in recent weeks found itself in an extremely uncomfortable, and potentially risky, situation. In the aftermath of the failed Hanoi summit, prospects for future negotiations with the United States do not look good.
Even if negotiations resume, it seems that the United States is unlikely to give North Korea the type of concessions Kim Jong Un and his advisors expect. And while international sanctions have failed to produce any kind of crisis inside North Korea so far, they still make a resumption of the kind of economic growth which the country saw in the first years of Kim Jong Un’s rule impossible.
The young leader knows well, of course, that his only chance at staying in power in the long-term is economic recovery. With this in mind it’s clear that, for the time being, the diplomatic strategy that the North Korean government has followed in recent years has been unsuccessful. A few words of caution are necessary here. As an ancient Georgian poet noted, after all: “everyone considers themselves a great strategist when he sees a battlefield from afar.”
Decisions in foreign policy (like decisions in business, warfare, and many other areas) are made when the people in charge don’t have access to all necessary information and have to rely on what is known at the time of the decision making.
Historians, armed with the wisdom of hindsight, necessarily find themselves in a privileged position, and as such should not be excessively harsh in their judgement.
We have seen countless time how disastrous consequences were brought about by decisions which looked perfectly reasonable. On top of that, one should not be excessively critical about the North Korean diplomats who, for decades, have shown remarkable skills in playing an extremely difficult game.Nonetheless, nobody is safe from mistakes — and North Korean strategists are no exception.
So, what went wrong for North Korean foreign policy in the last eight years (if judged from the point of view of the Kim family’s long term interests, of course)?
The first mistake was alienating China – or, perhaps, the lack of efforts to woo China.
The last years of Kim Jong Il’s rule were marked by a significant improvement of relations with Beijing. For a brief while, this continued under Kim Jong Un, but things quickly took a dramatic turn for the worse. Throughout the 2013-2016 period, the North Koreans kept their distance from China. It’s telling that it took a major international emergency — the seemingly real threat of a U.S. military strike — to get Kim Jong Un to finally visit China in March 2018.
Furthermore, under Kim Jong Un the North Koreans were frequently provocative towards China. They confiscated a large Chinese iron ore mine, they intercepted Chinese fishing boats, they harassed and arrested hwagyo, the Chinese citizens who have North Korean permanent residence rights.
When Kim Jong Un’s uncle and his erstwhile close advisor, Jang Song Thaek, was arrested and almost immediately executed in 2013, the openly published indictment claimed that the fallen dignitary had been excessively soft on China (euphemistically referred to as ‘a large country’).
A living example of these uneasy relations is a large bridge which was supposed to connect the Chinese city of Dandong with the North Korean city of Sinuiju.
The new bridge, built to replace the old and increasingly dysfunctional 1944 bridge, was basically completed in 2014, but never opened. It was the Chinese who built the bridge, but it was left to the North Koreans just connect its southern (that is, Korean) end with the road network. But they have refused to do so, so the unused bridge ends abruptly in the middle of a paddy field.
Such a policy might have some explanations. For example, there are good reasons to believe that the Chinese leaders favored two other members of the Kim family – Jang Song Thaek and Kim Jong Nam — over Kim Jong Un (both ended up being killed on the young leader’s orders). It seems possible that Kim Jong Un, too, has held an arrogant and hostile attitude to China since his school days in Europe. One thing is clear: in 2011-2016 North Korea, in spite of its steadily growing economic dependence on China, did a lot to annoy Beijing.
This policy, predictably, backfired. When, between 2016-17, U.S. diplomats at the UN Security Council suggested new and unprecedentedly harsh sanctions against North Korea, Chinese representatives, contrary to what most people expected, eagerly accepted the proposal.
They did not try to water the sanctions down and, in some cases, even pressed the otherwise reluctant Russians to support the toughest sanctions ever. As a result, the ‘sectoral sanctions’ introduced between February 2016 and December 2017 put North Korea into a position akin to a full-scale economic blockade.
In early 2018, the North Korean government likely realized that it had gone too far and began to work hard to woo China back. The trade war between China and the United States made their task a lot easier. However, in many regards, it was too late.
The sanctions introduced by the UN Security Council will be very difficult to lift. Once a decision is accepted by all five permanent member states, it can be removed only if all them agree to it.
Given the tough American position on the issue, the removal of sanctions looks highly unlikely. In the UN Security Council it does not matter what the Chinese and Russians say – only the unanimous actions of the five great powers make a difference.
Another mistake by the North Korean leaders was their decision to proceed with developing their ICBM capabilities at a time when the White House had a new and rather unusual tenant.
There is little doubt that North Koreans have always wanted to possess a delivery system capable of striking the continental United States — and the significant technological breakthroughs of the Kim Jong Un era made this possible much faster than most outside observers expected. However, this success backfired.
In 2017, the North Koreans discovered that they were facing a President who was willing to consider a preemptive strike against them, with little regard for a possible retaliation against targets in the South.
Rightly or wrongly, Donald Trump was seen as a President who could not be deterred by concerns about the fate of U.S. allies. It was under the tenure of such a President, then, when the North Koreans decided to demonstrate their crown achievement – the workable ICBM program.
Predictably, the successful ICBM tests in 2017 triggered an unprecedented response from Donald Trump, which, together with Chinese reluctance to raise a finger to protect Pyongyang, resulted in the emergence of the present-day sanctions regime.
There might have been another, less significant, mistake made by the North Koreans. Perhaps influenced by the massive anti-Trump slant of the mainstream American media, they underestimated the U.S. President. It appears that they expected that Trump would be willing to accept their proposal – that is, to surrender almost all of the sanctions regime in exchange for a very partial surrender of North Korea’s nuclear production capabilities.
This did not work out — and now North Korea’s decision-makers are facing an extremely dangerous and bumpy ride ahead.
Personally, having studied the country for 35 years, I strongly suspect that the North Korean government and its diplomats will find a solution and will jump out of this trap. However, at the time of writing, it appears that they are locked in an unfavorable situation. Unfortunately for them, it is, to a large extent, of their own making.
North Korea wraps up renovations at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, By Oliver Hotham
Hotel reopens ahead of this weekend’s marathon, April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday
Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel this week reopened for business following several months of renovations, photos posted online by the Koryo Tours travel company showed on Friday.
The renovations, unveiled days before the city is set to host the annual Pyongyang Marathon and ahead of the April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday, have seen the hotel upgrade much of its front lobby as well as several of its bars and cafes. “Basically everything in the lobby is still where it was; cloakroom, bar, telecoms centre, etc but it’s all been resurfaced and made shiny and new,” Koryo Tours General Manager Simon Cockerell told NK News.
“The main change is the bar which is much more open now, with the barriers between booths taken down,” he said. “So on busy nights it could get a bit noisier and hard to have a quiet conversation in there.” The work represents the first major overhaul of the Yanggakdo lobby since the hotel opened in 1996, he added. “The bar was redone around 12 years go, the coffee shop in the lobby added, but nothing on this scale.” Its reopening this week coincides with major upgrades to the hotel’s casino – now reportedly “back and operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” following an extended closure.
Those upgrades include a sporadic WiFi service allowing online money transfers via two well-known Chinese platforms, NK News reported late last year.
Open access to Wi-Fi is extremely rare in Pyongyang, though a commercially accessible wireless internet access point was reportedly installed at the capital’s Potonggang hotel sometime in early fall.
Describing the upgrade as taking “from classic 1990’s to futuristic Ashgabat airport Turkmen modern chic,” Koryo Tours compared this week’s upgrade as comparable to similar renovations undertaken at the nearby Koryo Hotel in 2017. Alongside the Koryo Hotel, the Yanggakdo serves as one of the North Korean capital’s busiest hubs for foreign visitors to the country – often hosting friendship delegations and international press during major public holidays.
Despite the major overhaul of much of the first floor of the hotel, however, most of the Yanggakdo’s facility has gone unchanged, Koryo wrote.“For those fans of the Yanggakdo’s original decor, much remains the same beyond the hotel lobby.” After its lobby renovations, the Koryo Hotel also lacked any changes to the rooms guests stay in.
No Chinese fuel exports to North Korea since 2017, Beijing’s trade data suggests, By Leo Byrne
Russia, Pongwha facility now DPRK’s only official sources of refined fuels: data
Chinese refined oil product exports to North Korea haven’t included fuels like gasoline and diesel for over a year, analysis of Beijing’s customs data shows. If accurate, the numbers represent an apparently unannounced fuel cut off that has run from mid-2017 until the start of this year — at least in theory.
“A new path” of socialist construction: North Korean street propaganda in March, By Oliver Hotham
DPRK continues to push heavy focus on the economy in street-level messaging, photos suggest
Street-level propaganda in North Korea last month continued the heavy focus on the economy seen late last year, images obtained by NK Pro showed this week. In messaging seen both in the capital city of Pyongyang and in rural areas, posters and slogans on North Korean streets and roads called on citizens to “thoroughly implement”.