Kim Jong Un is holding the corpses of American soldiers hostage–again. One of many signs the supposed romance between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump is very much over.
After the first summit between Trump and the North Korean Leader in Singapore last year, among the accomplishments touted by Trump as major was the return of the remains of GIs killed in the Korean War, which ended in 1953.
But since the complete failure of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi at the end of February, cooperation in the search for any more identifiable bones has ended along with obviously unrealistic hopes for getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
The other bragging point out of Singapore had been an end to Kim’s missile tests. Obviously the big concern was his ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the United States with nuclear warheads. But it was clear any missile tests would be seen as provocative.
Now those provocations have begun, with fresh tests of short and medium range missiles.
If there were any doubt the Kim-Trump romance that the president declared at Singapore is now over, and bitter, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday the dramatic-sounding seizure of a sanctions-busting North Korean ship full of coal. In fact, as the DOJ complaint shows, the ship known as the Wise Honest was detained in Indonesia by local authorities in April 2018, weeks before the Singapore summit in June, and formally seized by the United States in July 2018, a few weeks afterward. The announcement is being made only now. Presumably it comes as no surprise at all to Kim.
On the question of of the corpses, word from the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is the North has done and said nothing about looking for more remains since the bones of 55 fallen GI’s were flown amid great ceremony last August from South Korea’s Osan Air Base to Hickam Air Base in Hawaii. More than 5,000 soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are still missing–though the North Koreans are assumed to be holding the remains of some of them, waiting for U.S. concessions on sanctions before returning more.
North Korea timed its latest missile shots most adroitly, just as the chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea was in Seoul talking over strategy and options with senior South Korean officials. He’s meeting Friday with the South’s foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha and Kim Yeon-chul, unification minister.
U.S. analysts are familiar with North Korean negotiating tactics: the raising of tensions, the refusal to talk, the brandishing of weaponry, all the while pressing demands for relief from sanctions imposed after tests of nuclear warheads and long-range ballistic missiles, last fired in late 2017.
“The next actions could include a long-range missile launch,” says Steve Tharp, who’s made a career of analyzing North Korean intentions as both a military officer and senior official with the U.S. command in Korea. “Right now they are simply reminding us of the other more serious actions that they can take and they want to shake up the Moon Administration. They aren't finished.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to soften yet another blow to his controversial quest for rapprochement with a regime that has shown no real signs of giving up its nuclear program despite pledges of denuclearization in his three summits with Kim.
Moon, in an exercise in face-saving, sought to put the best face on the latest North Korean shots, describing them as “short-range missiles” that flew only “a short distance.” His use of the term “missiles,” however, came as acknowledgement that they were something more than “short-range projectiles,” as the missiles fired last Saturday were described.
In an interview with the South’s state broadcaster, KBS, Moon sought to transfer the blame to the U.S. by saying the shots were an expression of the North’s displeasure with the debacle of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi.
The North has significantly upped the ante by sending the last two shots considerably further into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan. One of them flew more than 400 kilometers, the other 270 kilometers.
By calling the missiles “short-range,” Moon avoided the issue of whether they broke resolutions adopted by the U.N. Security Council banning the North from testing weapons using ballistic missile technology. That question, however, was still sure to come up in debate among Security Council members.
“It's back to Square One if the U.S. chooses to interpret and respond to as such,” says Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst. Trump faces the choice, she said, of “either returning to ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric” or softening “on the terms of denuclearization and sanctions relief.”
If the missile shots were still “treated as a minor flurry,” she says, the U.S. could go on insisting on complete denuclearization rather than a step-by-step process including relief from sanctions in return for North Korea slowly abandoning its nuclear program.
Trump may be anxious to go on with his lovefest with Kim Jong Un, as indicated after his 35-minute phone conversation with Moon on Wednesday, but he still favors what’s called “the big deal”–North Korea totally abandoning its nuclear program, revealing where it’s making and testing warheads and long-range missiles, and surrendering those it’s made already.
It was on those issues that the summit in Hanoi last February broke down. Kim was caught by surprise by demands made across the table in Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel. Trump walked out, canceling what was to have been a celebratory lunch, despite his protestations of friendship with the North Korean leader.
U.S. experts believe China has to exercise its considerable influence over North Korea even as China and the U.S. are in tendentious talks over Trump’s insistence on raising tariffs on Chinese imports.
“I don’t think the U.S. alone can do it,” said Joseph Yun, former chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea. “Relations between China and North Korea would be vital.” China, he said, “does want denuclearization” of North Korea, but its “ultimate goal is to get the U.S. out of its back door” – that is, for U.S. forces to leave South Korea.
Meanwhile, “China wants stability and continuation of the Kim regime while denuclearization is going on,” said Yun. “Nobody in China believes this can be done quickly.”
Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, described the launch of “projectiles” as “an expression of North Korea’s impatience.” There is “no prospect of a happy ending without the cooperation of China,” he said, but the U.S.-China trade war “has at least the potential to derail U.S.-China cooperation” on North Korea.
North Korea, though, could act fast on preliminary steps, including setting up joint search teams to look for the remains of more GI’s and returning sets of remains that it’s got in storage, waiting for the moment to return them.
The fact that nothing is happening on those remains underlines the severity of the disruption of moves toward reconciliation–and the difficulty of getting back to serious talks. Chuck Pritchard, spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said attempts to “communicate” with the North Korean military had been “suspended” since “we can no longer effectively plan, coordinate and conduct field operations.”
That frank assessment seemed to apply to the entire process after a year of high hopes for a real peace, at last, on the Korean peninsula.
Christopher Dickey also contributed reporting to this story.