Guess what country just issued stamps of Donald Trump? North Korea! Yes: An official postage stamp features grave-looking likenesses of President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, standing side by side. It commemorates their pleasantry-laden chitchat earlier this summer at Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.
Why is North Korea celebrating that moment as “historic” (Mr. Kim’s own word)? Because it has to. After Mr. Kim scurried down to get whatever face time the American would grant him, the scene had all the makings of a public humiliation. So the North Koreans are now aggressively pretending that the encounter was somehow a coup for Mr. Kim.
And Panmunjom is only his latest misstep this year. North Korea makes its living off nuclear brinkmanship — and it has been firing missiles repeatedly in recent weeks — but lately its Dear Respected leader has been on a losing streak in that racket. For perhaps the first time in living memory, Team Kim is being outmaneuvered by the Americans in their zero-sum contest.
Let’s start with the Panmunjom blunder. The first rule of North Korean diplomacy is that Pyongyang controls everything — the venue, the timing, the agenda, the invitees — otherwise there are no meetings. Yet in June, with a seemingly offhand tweet suggesting a last-minute encounter at the DMZ, Mr. Trump upended 70 years of North Korean protocol. Within hours, Mr. Kim’s minions promised that their man would show. The American president came, he saw and he left without making any concessions.
Mr. Kim’s curious solicitousness at Panmunjom was not just driven by a hunger to share (again) a scene with the world’s most powerful leader. He desperately needs something that only Mr. Trump can grant: relief from the sanctions that are gradually smothering the North Korean economy. Only Potus can decree an end to the U.S. Treasury Department’s unilateral strictures, and as long as America has a veto at the United Nations, any proposal to relax Security Council sanctions against North Korea is dead on arrival.
True, all these sanctions are far from watertight. China, Russia and others cheat on them. The North Korean government reportedly is making serious cash from inventive new illegal activities, such as cybercrime. And so far, some important economic markers, such as cereal prices and the informal exchange rate of the North Korean currency against the dollar and the yuan, seem to be holding steady.
But the North Korean economy is hurting. Last month South Korea’s state-funded trade and investment promotion agency reported that merchandise imports into North Korea fell by nearly one third between 2017 and 2018. South Korea’s central bank reckons that North Korea’s gross domestic product last year suffered its worst drop since the great famine of the 1990s. And earlier this year the United Nations warned that a drought and crop shortfalls were exposing as many as 10 million North Koreans, about 40 percent of the country’s population, to “severe food shortages.”
As sanctions cut off the oxygen in the tent, these trends can be expected to worsen. And when the North Korean government starts running out of currency reserves and strategic stockpiles of food and energy, the crisis will no longer be possible to conceal.
Mr. Kim thought he had devised an escape from the sanctions trap: His audacious scheme was to influence American decision-making by cultivating President Trump personally. At the United States-North Korea summit in Hanoi earlier this year, Mr. Kim was supposed to game “the dotard” — his sometime epithet for Mr. Trump — tricking the American president into trading general sanctions relief for a freeze on just one of the North’s many nuclear facilities. Having played Mr. Trump at their first summit in Singapore the previous year — winning then almost all of the mainly symbolic opening points in their initial face to face — he and his crew arrived confident for the second.
But “the dotard” didn’t fall for it. No agreement at all emerged from the Hanoi meeting, a disastrous outcome for Mr. Kim, and apparently one he and his team had not even contemplated. Instead of broadcasting the victory dance against the American imperialists that North Korea’s propaganda industry had been preparing, state media went strangely silent about the summit for days, puzzling over how to put a good face on a strategic fiasco and personal failure for their leader.
The North Korean government now faces an ominous new predicament. If it resort to its old shakedown playbook, any threat it makes that is bold enough to frighten the international community will also further tighten the sanctions noose, guaranteeing even worse economic trouble at home. But if North Korea dispenses with bared-fang diplomacy and doubles down on building the Kim-Trump relationship, sanctions still may not be removed until North Korea denuclearizes — in which case its distorted economy will still eventually suffocate, just somewhat more slowly.
And so the North Korean government is experimenting with microaggressions: provocations not so dire as to poison the Kim-Trump bromance, but sufficiently worrisome to require good old-fashioned appeasement. Hence the short-range missile tests over the past month — launches that Mr. Trump could brush off as involving neither nuclear tests nor intercontinental ballistic missiles, but that improve North Korea’s aim on, say, American troops stationed in South Korea. Mr. Kim’s message is: “We are not targeting Washington, but get your troops out of my peninsula.”
Yet this latest gambit may not work out as intended either. The United States recently withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. It has said it was considering plans to deploy intermediate range missiles in Asia. Not only would this move, if consummated, check North Korea’s threatening power on the Korean Peninsula, but it could incite China to exert more pressure on North Korea to denuclearize, if that might keep new American missiles from being placed in the region.
Unusual public signals from North Korea in recent months suggest that Mr. Kim’s setbacks may be raising questions among the elites in Pyongyang. Robert Carlin, a longtime decoder of North Korean propaganda, has tracked a furious and scarcely concealed debate on the front pages of the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun since the Hanoi debacle. One side argues that engagement for a new diplomatic relationship with America is key to North Korea’s future. The other side argues that such thinking is dangerous nonsense — there can be no trust in the United States or other big powers — and North Korea should revert to its time-honored game plan of seeking nuclear weapons, and confrontationally.
Note, in particular, Rodong Sinmun’s extraordinary, and weirdly plaintive, defense of the Panmunjom meeting. (Kudos to the veteran intelligence analyst John McCreary for catching and flagging this.) “It is because of [Kim’s] splendid close relationship with President Trump that a dramatic meeting like today’s could happen in just one day, and [Kim] stated that the splendid relationship between President Trump and himself will continue to create good results that others could not predict,” the paper reported, adding that the “epoch-making meeting” was “an amazing event that created unprecedented trust between two countries.” In other words: Dear Respected is begging his subjects, via his regime’s mouthpiece paper, to trust his judgment. Astonishing.
The strategic environment for North Korea is not unrelievedly bleak. China and Russia seem to be aligning partly to thwart America’s North Korea policy. Japan and South Korea, two allies of the United States, are indulging in another spiral of mutual recrimination. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is making delusional musings about joining economic forces with the North — and together overtaking Japan economically. And no one can ever discount the potential for a Trump own-goal.
But the main point is this: Things are not going well for Mr. Kim, neither abroad nor, apparently, at home. He has warned that North Korea would adopt a “new path” if sanctions are not lifted and has set the end of the year as a deadline for reaching some breakthrough with the United States. It remains to be seen, though, just how, or whether, North Korea’s Boy King can get his mojo back.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute and a founding director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.