In a speech at the Wilson Center forum in D.C., a North Korean defector told attendees that President Donald Trump’s hardline approach to the dictatorship has Kim Jong Un running scared. So frightened is Kim of a pre-emptive strike on his military that he is finally trying a new tactic with his neighbors to the south: Diplomacy.
“Kim Jong Un is afraid that the U.S. will launch a preventative strike, and he is trying to buy time to complete his nuclear and missile programs,” said the defector, Ri Jong Ho.
Ri, who is one of the highest-ranking officials to ever turn against the Kim regime, said that Trump’s militaristic threats, when combined with new U.S. sanctions and trade blockades, were putting the totalitarian in a tight spot.
“Kim Jong Un is struggling under the strongest-yet sanctions and military and diplomatic pressure, so he is trying to improve the situation by putting on a false front,” Ri said.
While Ri does not have any firsthand knowledge of what the talk is like in the North Korean capital right now – he defected four years ago – he does know quite a bit about how the regime operates. That, combined with his memory of how tight the regime’s economic situation was in 2014, gives him special insight as to what might be going through Kim’s head as he reaches out to the South Koreans.
Unfortunately, if he’s right, it casts a dark pall over the charade we saw at the Winter Olympics last week. No one with a serious thought running through their head believed that North Korea was suddenly turning over a new leaf. But there was some nervous hope in the air that Trump might have pushed Kim to the point where he had no other out but to begin walking towards the negotiating table. Instead, it may be that Kim is only stalling – hoping to fool South Korea into complacency long enough that he can delay a pre-emptive strike from the U.S.
“Depending on the circumstances, North Korea could hold South Koreans hostage and continue its threatening provocations,” Ri said.
Judging by what we’ve seen and heard from the Trump administration thus far, we’re not sure the president has much patience left for Kim’s procrastination, much less his international nuclear threats. The calculus of a strike – even a limited one – comes with extraordinary risk to our Pacific allies, but then, so does endless delay.
We would be mildly surprised if we get to 2019 without some form of action.