What Kim Jong Un’s regime shake-up says about his leadership

“North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rewiring his nation’s government to operate less like a dictator’s playground and more like an organization that can handle multiple crises at once.

According to reports this week from CNN, Reuters, and other media outlets, Kim appointed a de facto second-in-command back in January to help lead the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. As “first secretary,” a title Kim himself held from 2012 to 2016 (he assumed the grander role of “general secretary” in January 2021), this as-yet-unknown person will serve as the despot’s “representative” to the WPK.

Experts were quick to say this person won’t actually be North Korea’s second-in-command. It’s at best a kind of executive secretary role, someone who has the authority to handle day-to-day party operations but not the power to make key decisions without the boss’s say-so.

“It means no change to [Kim’s] status as the supreme leader of North Korea, but it will mean a change in his leadership style,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based fellow at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, DC. In fact, “Kim technically always has had a ‘second-in-command’ in every party, state, and military institution,” she added.

The new and unprecedented role, then, isn’t really about some already prominent North Korean official gaining more authority. Rather, it’s Kim’s latest reform to ensure his regime can handle all affairs of state without his consistent, direct input.

“It should suggest to us that Kim is doing things internally,” said Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at the CNA, a Virginia-based think tank. “He’s changing this regime and making it a more normalized organization.””

Why North Korea is ramping up missile tests again

“Why is North Korea suddenly testing all these missiles?

Experts are split. One potential reason is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to slowly ratchet up pressure on Biden and get his attention.

“North Korea usually begins its new military threats-cum-psychological warfare cycle through graduated escalation,” Sung-Yoon Lee, an expert on Pyongyang’s politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told me.”

“the North Korean leader wants the tests to bother Biden so much that the US engages in some kind of diplomacy with North Korea to stop the launches. Once at the negotiating table, Pyongyang would seek an end to US sanctions on the country before agreeing to dismantle (at least some parts of) its nuclear program, while Washington would push for the opposite — North Korea first verifiably dismantling at least some parts of its nuclear program before the US lifts any sanctions.

That broad standoff has plagued US-North Korean relations for decades, but it’s particularly irksome to Kim right now. The sanctions hurt his country’s economy, which the dictator has promised to improve, and are especially biting during the Covid-19 pandemic. His new round of testing, then, is a message to the White House: End the sanctions, or America’s relations with North Korea are about to get a lot more tense.”

“The other potential explanation experts gave me for the recent tests has less to do with the US and more to do with simply improving North Korea’s military capabilities.

“These launches are not a cry for attention, nor are they a cry for help with North Korea’s broken economy. Such launches are a sign of North Korea’s clear determination to continue advancing its ballistic-missile programs as part of making good on the ambitious plans for North Korea’s weapons programs,” said Markus Garlauskas, the US national intelligence officer for North Korea from 2014 to 2020.

Getting stronger militarily, after all, was a promise Kim made to top North Korean officials and his people during a January meeting. “If these [launches] go unchecked by the international community, this is likely to lead to launches of bigger and more capable systems, including those capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads,” added Garlauskas, who is now at the Atlantic Council think tank in DC.

Whatever the reason, though, it’s important to note that Kim could have chosen to be even more aggressive than he has been.”

North Korea is giving Biden the silent treatment

“Since 1992, America’s policy toward North Korea has been mostly consistent: It would seek the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Simply put, that means the US won’t station nuclear-capable warplanes in South Korea and Seoul won’t seek the bomb, all so North Korea feels comfortable enough to verifiably dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

When Kim and former President Donald Trump met in Singapore in 2018, they signed a declaration in which North Korea promised to work toward such an outcome.

But three times now the Biden administration has offered a harder-line stance than that, potentially reversing even that limited progress.

In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN’s Conference on Disarmament that the US “remains focused on denuclearization of North Korea.” By phrasing it that way — the denuclearization of North Korea instead of the Korean Peninsula — he seemed to be suggesting that only North Korea needs to give up its nuclear weapons, while the US can still maintain its nuclear defense of South Korea.

Last week, the US — along with its “Quad” partners Japan, India, and Australia — released a statement saying, “We reaffirm our commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea.”

And then on Sunday, a State Department press briefing about Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Japan this week noted they would “reinvigorate trilateral cooperation on a broad range of global issues, including the denuclearization of North Korea.”

Even though Biden’s team has said its North Korea policy remains under review for a few more weeks, those statements indicate the administration has made up its mind. The goal now, it seems, is to let Pyongyang know it alone must agree to a non-nuclear future. For now at least, it looks like the Biden administration is taking a harder line than the Trump team did.

That might please some US allies like Japan, which prefers a tougher stance against North Korea. But Seoul, which wants to keep diplomatic channels with Pyongyang open, certainly won’t like it, and neither will Kim.”

4 looming foreign policy crises that could derail Biden’s agenda early on

“President-elect Joe Biden may want his administration to focus on long-term issues like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, rebuilding alliances, and America’s relationship with China, but some key near-term foreign policy problems will likely require his attention first.

After the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by an unknown attacker, Iran might be less willing to engage in diplomacy with America and instead seek revenge by targeting US officials. North Korea could test an intercontinental ballistic missile early in Biden’s term to try to gauge the new administration’s response. The last remaining nuclear arms control deal between the US and Russia is set to expire just over two weeks after Biden takes office. And the reduced number of American troops in Afghanistan could derail sputtering peace talks and worsen the country’s security situation.

Such a dilemma wouldn’t be unique to Biden. Every new president comes in with ideas on how to handle larger global problems, only to have the colloquial “tyranny of the inbox” monopolize their time. “If you assume that foreign policy is less than half, and maybe a quarter, of the president’s time, then that really shines a light on how serious this inbox problem is,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Once he’s in the Oval Office, then, Biden will likely find his hopes of tackling grander foreign policy challenges dashed by the effort he’ll have to expend cleaning up more immediate messes.”

North Korea shows off new, larger ICBM missile during parade

“It wasn’t clear if the monster missile was active or simply a shell, but the unprecedented spectacle less than a month ahead of the U.S. presidential election could raise the specter of coming North Korean weapons tests.

North Korea hasn’t tested an ICBM in almost three years. And the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, conducted three high-wattage meetings with President Trump after the flight of Hwasong-15, a missile believed to be capable of reaching the U.S.

This year, North Korea has taken a hostile posture toward the U.S., airing grievances and declaring its aversion to nuclear negotiations with Washington.

A military display was not unexpected on Saturday, the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, and Kim didn’t directly criticize the U.S. during the festivities.

But the event stood out for size of the possible new missile, which appeared much larger than the Hwasong-15, and for the parade’s timing in the small hours of Saturday morning local time.

“This was most unusual,” Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told the Daily News. “The amount of electricity they must have spent — in a country that lacks electricity even in the capital city — shows you they went all-out.””

What Trump got right — and wrong — with North Korea, explained by a former intel official

“it tells us is exactly what Kim said at the end of his speech, which is that time is on North Korea’s side, not on America’s side. The parade also demonstrated the ability of North Korea to continue advancing its weapons programs despite international sanctions, despite pressure. It really showed the progress they’re continuing to make in terms of their capabilities.”

“If the North Koreans are not convinced to maintain at least some restraint on weapons testing, regardless of which administration is in office next year, it will basically destroy any chance for diplomacy on favorable terms. It will be very, very difficult to say that we’re containing the threat or having any sort of a negotiation that’s advantageous to us.

Once you get past that point, if you can get North Korea to halt its testing of the more advanced systems, then it becomes possible to talk about having a different type of negotiation with North Korea. But you have to deal with it early and prevent the North Koreans from launching a new provocative test, otherwise you’re just reacting to them — and then you’re in another really, really tough spot.”

“I think we got much closer to war in 1994, in 2010, and in 2015 than we did in 2017. There was a very large gap between the rhetoric and the activity in 2017. And if you say we almost went to war in 2017, then you’re essentially saying the US almost started the war, because there was no sign Kim Jong Un was interested in going to war — he was testing weapons. He wasn’t striking South Korea or sinking ships.”

“We have to be willing to go back to a 2017 level of confrontation. If Kim senses that the US is more afraid of war than he is, then he has the advantage.
North Korea, no matter how many weapons advances it makes, is never going to get to the point where it has the capability to win a war against the United States of America.

As long as you proceed from the premise that Kim is not crazy or suicidal — which of course I don’t proceed from because he’s a rational, cunning, intelligent man who’s really learned a lot about how to deal with the United States and how to lead this country — as long as that’s the basis, then you have to be comfortable with the idea of confronting Kim and convincing him there are military options the United States has and could use.

If we get to a point where we feel sanctions and war can’t work, then that basically puts Kim in the position where he can dictate terms, and I don’t think that’s going to get us where we need to be.”

How Trump got suckered by Iran and North Korea

“Kim Jong Un didn’t give up his nuclear weapons. Negotiations stalled. North Korea resumed testing with 22 missile launches and counting, including a new submarine-launched missile with a range of about 2,500 km. And North Korea, in December, resumed engine testing at a test facility near Tongchang-ri. Kim ended the year with a speech in which he announced that he would no longer abide by the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, that North Korea would “shift to shocking actual actions to make [the US] fully pay,” and would soon reveal a “new strategic weapon.”

Yet US officials are still arguing that these threats are little more than bluster and that Kim will soon enough yield to pressure. On January 7, a State Department official asserted that there had been a “significant reduction through the year of North Korean activity, missiles, tests, and all the rest of that stuff” and that “will continue … because the US has taken a solid stand and demonstrated strength and insistence that the agreements be adhered to.”

US officials, of course, said the same thing about Iran. When a State Department official was asked if he thought Iran would retaliate after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the official said, “No, I don’t.” When reporters pressed the issue, he said: “I’m just saying that weakness invites more aggression. Timidity will invite more aggression,” and “we’re speaking in a language the regime understands.” That was on January 3. Less than a week later, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US targets in Iraq.

US officials were also skeptical that Iran would respond to Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that Tehran would simply agree to a “tougher” deal. Under the agreement reached by President Obama, the world lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to limits on its civilian nuclear energy program that would help reassure the world that Tehran was not building a nuclear weapon.

When Trump reimposed those sanctions, Iran responded by abandoning those limits one by one. Iran has not completely abandoned the agreement: It is still allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear programs, remains a non-nuclear member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has offered to return to compliance if the US removes the sanctions again.

But what Iran has not agreed to is the better deal that Trump’s supporters promised was just around the corner.”

“It is remarkable that, across the board, Trump’s strategies of pressure and bullying have resulted in no tangible agreements — no deal with Kim Jong Un, no meeting with Iran’s leaders, and no arms control deals with either the Russians or the Chinese.”

Escalation Breeds Escalation, in Iran and Beyond

“Washington’s bipartisan military-first approach to foreign affairs broadcasts to bad actors worldwide that U.S. intervention is always at hand and that a nuclear arsenal is the only sure deterrence against it.

North Korea has affirmed this logic explicitly. “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression,” a state-run media editorial declared in January 2016. Neither Iraq’s Saddam Hussein nor Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, both deposed and killed with U.S. involvement, could “escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations of nuclear development and giving up undeclared programs of their own accord,” the editorial continued. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is visibly determined not to follow in their footsteps.

For all its imperfections, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—better known as the “Iran deal”—presented an opportunity to break this pattern. Unfortunately, that opportunity is gone following Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. After the Soleimani strike, Tehran announced its own exit from the plan and, with that, its intent to proceed with nuclear research and development at will.”