Rocket Man's New Year's resolution

New Years is a time for fresh starts, optimistic attitudes and positive thinking, so what say we kick off the year with some good news out of North Korea? Naw… I’m just kidding. Things are still a mess over there. But during his annual address to welcome in 2018 (given from some undisclosed, bunker location), Kim Jong-un began striking a new tone. And while it’s not precisely conciliatory in nature, he at least sounds like he’s pretending to be interested in normalizing relations with the international community. In fact, he’s even talking about sending a delegation to the Olympic Games, as if none of the past seven years of his despotic reign had ever happened. (NBC News)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Monday that the United States would never be able to start a war against North Korea now that his country had developed the capability to hit all of the U.S. mainland with its nuclear weapons.

“The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat,” Kim said in his annual New Year’s Day speech.

“This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment,” Kim said. “These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”

So we’ve shifted from, ‘I’m going to be blowing you up any day now,’ to ‘I’ll just be ready to blow you up at any time with this button on my desk. Yay? Clearly, Rocket Man considers his nation’s transition to being a member of the nuclear club complete and now expects to be welcomed back into the international community as a member in good standing. After declaring that he would be focusing on stocking up on missiles and nuclear warheads, Kim stressed the need to, “lower military tensions on the Korean peninsula and to improve ties with the South.” As I mentioned above, he even went so far as to suggest that he might send a delegation to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.

To give credit where due, this shift in stance is too clever by half. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, desperate to lower the diplomatic temperature and stave off a debacle as his nation hosts the games, already suggested that the North should attend. The theory here is that Kim would probably be less likely to nuke the games if his own people were there. But by agreeing to it, Kim suddenly gets a seat at the international table where his country can be treated as a normal member of the global club.

Choe Sang-Hun, a South Korean journalist and Korea Correspondent for The New York Times, points out how Kim getting cozy with the south could immediately undermine the relationship between Seoul and Washington.

North Korea’s surprise call on Monday for direct talks with South Korea could drive a wedge into the decades-old alliance between Seoul and Washington, potentially creating a reprieve from months of tensions but also undercutting President Trump’s tough approach to the nuclear-armed North…

Analysts said Mr. Kim was looking for opportunities to weaken international resolve to enforce the penalties, as well as to sow discord between the United States and South Korea.

As I said… too clever by half. Kim may be a madman, but he’s not ignorant in terms of international politics. As long as he was still detonating weapons and launching missiles, pretty much the entire world was against him. But while the United States wants to push for a path to denuclearization, countries like Russia and China seem to be open to discussing a deal which simply stabilizes North Korea’s nuclear program if it means there’s no more talk of mushroom clouds over the Pacific. If that leads to weakening or even lifting the sanctions on his country, Kim Jong-un may have outfoxed everyone, achieving his dream of being a nuclear power while restoring his traditional supply lines. As we’ve seen with Cuba and Venezuela, tough sanctions don’t work if the United States and a few other countries are the only ones participating.

This has obviously been Kim’s goal since ascending to power. The question now is what, if anything, we can do about it. If we wind up having to simply accept a new, permanent member of the nuclear weapons club under the control of a madman, we’ve lost that struggle entirely. Unfortunately, the time to put an end to this was back in the early 90s when the IAEA first determined that the North was turning spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium. Now it may be too late, and short of a unilateral military attack on Kim’s nuclear facilities (which would garner little to no international support if North Korea didn’t fire first), there may nothing to be done about it.