Although senior North Korean officials have publicly stated that the nation’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, refuses to participate in diplomatic talks with the United States until after they have confirmed their ability to hit America’s east coast with a nuclear strike, reports from the region seem to indicate that North Korean officials have begun reaching out, just not in the capacity the U.S. State Department likely hoped. It seems they have been contacting American diplomats and journalists in hopes of cutting through President Trump’s rhetoric to better understand the president’s position.
“They want to know if he’s crazy, or if this is just an act,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a foreign-policy expert who maintains a dialogue with some North Korean officials told Politico. “They really want to know what is his endgame … They follow the news very closely; they watch CNN 24/7; they read his tweets and other things,” said DiMaggio.
For instance, on President Trump’s ongoing Indo-Pacific tour, the American president has presented what could be argued as two distinct positions toward the possibility of working with North Korea to find a peaceful resolution to the heightening tensions between the two nations. While in Japan, Trump seemed to indicate a hopeful outlook, even going so far as to encourage the North Korean government to release Japanese prisoners in the interest of improving relations. However, just days later from South Korea, the president’s rhetoric returned to its previous aggressive tone, calling out the nation for its flagrant human rights violations and delivering a stark warning directed at Kim Jong Un by name.
I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship: the weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face,”
Trump said in South Korea last week.
Because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had limited success in opening official lines of communication with North Korea, the vast majority of interactions between the two nations take place through public media channels, leaving North Korea reportedly questioning Trump’s willingness to actually engage in diplomacy if the opportunity were to arise. According to reports, the president’s decision not to re-certify the Iran nuclear deal further concerns North Korean officials, who see it as a sign of what may result from a similarly negotiated denuclearization efforts within their own nation.
According to DiMaggio, that decision “has sent a clear signal to the North Koreans: why should they enter a deal with us, if we’re not going to stick with it?” She went on to indicate a reluctance to open a dialogue with Trump pending the result of the investigation into collusion with the Russian influence campaign that took place during the 2016 presidential election, saying, “Why should we begin negotiations with the Trump administration, when Donald Trump may not be president much longer?”
Of course, it’s important to note that despite the difficulty North Korean officials are apparently having in interpreting Trump’s rhetoric, their confusion remains a product of their own unwillingness to engage in actual diplomatic conversation with America’s State Department. If Kim Jong Un was actually interested in learning the American stance on diplomacy, or the potential for war with North Korea, there remains one certain avenue for clarity: simply asking.
With that in mind, it seems likely that North Korea’s efforts to seek an American policy translator to better understand the (sometimes contradictory) statements made by President Trump are either due to a level of formal disinterest (leaving the task to those without enough formal authority to speak in an official capacity), or as a part of a wider effort to discredit the American position in the region in general. North Korea, in concert with public statements made by Chinese and Russian officials, has been working to instill the narrative that the U.S. is bullying the weaker nation rather than enforcing international norms, and seeking policy “translators” would certainly bolster that narrative.
As President Trump continues his tour of the region while a massive show of force comprised of three carrier strike groups and a series of allied vessels loom off the coast the Korean Peninsula, one could argue that America’s position on Kim’s nuclear aspirations is clear, leaving only the question: what is it that North Korea is so uncertain of? Because, while Trump’s rhetoric may be difficult to follow at times, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has a knack for boiling these issues down in a pretty simplistic manner.
“Diplomacy remains our preferred course of action, but as I have repeatedly emphasized, our diplomats are most effective when backed by credible military force in this sort of situation,” Mattis said last month. “Make no mistake: Any attempt on the United States or our allies will be defeated. Any use of nuclear weapons by the North will be met by a massive military response — effective and overwhelming.”
Image courtesy of the Associated Press