Delusions of Peace: Assessing North Korea, 2017-19

“Kim Jong-un’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.” As far as headlines go, that is hard to beat for flamboyance or lack of ambiguity. Yet also, surely, for utter wrong-headedness.

Even in August, when my friend Nick Eberstadt wrote the op-ed thus titled for the New York Times, this was a contrarian line. Most analysts reckoned that North Korea was doing pretty well. After the summit debacle in Hanoi in February, Kim had defiantly resumed testing ballistic missiles—while rebuffing US efforts to hold working level talks on denuclearization. Yet he was rewarded with a third meeting (albeit brief) with a smiling Donald Trump, this time at Panmunjom in June.

For Eberstadt, that “scene had all the makings of a public humiliation.” Kim “scurried down to get whatever face time [Trump] would grant him.” Five months later, this odd reading needs revising, or even reversing. If anyone was humiliated, it wasn’t Kim Jong Un. (How about the nominal host, ROK President Moon Jae-in, shut out of a meeting held in his own country?)

“For perhaps the first time, America seems to be outmaneuvering Team North Korea.” Even in August that boast seemed implausibly sanguine. Would Eberstadt claim the same now?

I would argue the exact opposite. As 2019 ends, Kim Jong Un holds all the cards. No change there: when does he not? The US is on its back foot and floundering.

In Seoul recently, that nice Mr. Biegun sounded almost plaintive: “Let’s get this done. We are here and you know how to reach us.” Thus is the global superpower reduced to pleading with North Korea, which manifestly is no longer interested—having reverted to taunts and insults.

Read more at 38 North

About the author

Aidan Foster-Carter

Aidan Foster-Carter is an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korea for over forty years.

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