Zumwalt: Pyongyang’s Denuclearization: Playing Ball with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 21, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visiting a fruit farm at Kwail-?p County, South Hwanghae Province. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIS KNS AND AFP PHOTO / STR / South Korea OUT / …
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Two points of interest have emerged concerning Pyongyang’s intentions on denuclearization in the wake of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 6 trip to North Korea: a statement issued as Pompeo departed the country, describing his demands as “gangster-like,” and the first statement issued by dictator Kim Jong-un since his summit meeting with President Donald Trump, suggesting a positive relationship between the two countries lies ahead. However, there is no mention about denuclearization.

It should now be clear that: 1) for Kim, it is back to delay tactics, and 2) for Trump, there will soon come a time when he will have to take the gloves off in dealing with him.

Anyone believing Kim is tearing at his pompadour-like hairstyle trying to decide between disarmament or not misunderstands the Kim family’s mindset.

One of the reasons the Kim dynasty has lasted almost three-quarters of a century – experiencing only sparing acts of retribution by the U.S. and South Korea despite its long, aggressive history after the Korean War – is that it has mastered playing the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The father and grandfather of the current leader were expert manipulators. It was their evil side — i.e., Mr. Hyde — often calling the shots, leading to a history of outrageous acts of aggression including assassination attempts in the South, successful and not; attacking and capturing a U.S. spy ship in international waters, incarcerating the crew for almost a year; shooting down a U.S. aircraft; kidnapping civilians in the South and in Japan; deploying special forces into the South via submarine; torpedoing and sinking a South Korean destroyer; attacking South Korean leaders in other countries; digging infiltration tunnels under the DMZ to use in the event of war; etc. The Kims’ collective evil is limited only by a deviant mindset.

The current Kim is credited with having already killed over 300 of his people, maintaining a reputation as an equal opportunity murderer. His victims have come from all three groups important to his rule: the party, the military, and his family.

Among those from the military was a senior officer who dared give extra food to soldiers.

Among family, his brutally executed uncle, along with the uncle’s entire family, was put to death as he feared the uncle colluded with China to topple him due to his reluctance to be Beijing’s lap dog.

Whenever Pyongyang has been in serious need of food, energy, humanitarian aid, etc. and unwilling to use its nuclear and missile program funding, the Kims proved astute at transitioning into the Dr. Jekyll role to get it. They have been effective primarily because their U.S. and South Korean counterparts naively believed they could succeed in defanging the North while previous democratic leaders failed. It will be interesting to see if this Kim’s Dr. Jekyll persona serves him as well as it did his predecessors.

A distinct difference exists this time, however, as Kim is dealing with a U.S. president committed, on record, to ending North Korea’s nuclear program — either voluntarily or involuntarily. The gauntlet has been thrown.

Unsurprisingly, we initially saw Dr. Jekyll emerge as Mr. Hyde bided his time — only to emerge after Pompeo’s visit. Kim seeks to play Trump while secretly continuing his program, hoping he is a one-term president.

While the media suggests certain actions by Kim might reveal a “kinder, gentler” tyrant, they fail to recognize, like the unicorn, such an animal is nonexistent. They see gestures like sending athletes to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang (for which South Korea paid all expenses), sending his sister to attend, and promising to turn over remains of two hundred American Korean War dead as evidence of working towards a peaceful outcome.

But all these are “softball” gestures — none made at the cost of denuclearization. Trump needs to play hardball with Kim by taking productive steps to do so and imposing strict deadlines. Unfortunately, he just threw Kim a softball with his recent announcement there is no “time limit” for North Korea to denuclearize.

Kim’s mindset seeks to play the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde role for as long as possible to preserve and advance his nuclear program. He will endeavor to milk negotiations by continuing to play softball.

A gift Trump has announced he intends to give Kim is an Elton John CD containing the song “Rocket Man.” That is the name Trump gave Kim earlier when the two were engaged in name-calling. During the summit meeting, Kim disavowed knowing the song, thus the reason for Trump’s gift (Trump himself clarified later that the CD was never delivered, as Pompeo did not personally meet with Kim).

No dictator, especially one whose ego is inflated daily by countrymen revering him as a god, appreciates being belittled. Thus, if Trump’s intent in giving such a gift is to convey the subtle message, “I will not hesitate to call you out for what you are, so toe the line,” it is proper.

However, Trump knows recent satellite photographs reveal ongoing North Korean nuclear development program activity. Thus, current factors suggest no voluntary initiative is being taken by Pyongyang to denuclearize.

The Kims have poured too much money into the program, receiving billions of dollars annually from the Iranians to share technology. The program’s success to date is treasured by the military. Evidence emerged recently Pyongyang is using all means possible concerning its technology to solicit money. A 2016 North Korean defector reported Kim even blackmailed Israel, threatening to sell missile technology to Iran unless paid $1 billion dollars in cash. For Kim to agree to destroy his nuclear program would cause him and the military to lose face in a culture where face-saving is all-important.

Kim knows denuclearization could actually result in his losing much more than just face — it could cost him his life at the hands of a disgruntled military seeking revenge. This is why, in his mind, Kim is not debating denuclearization. He knows he cannot afford to do so. And, should Trump get tougher, we will see more of Kim’s Mr. Hyde side.

Trump needs to understand Kim can be Dr. Jekyll today and Mr. Hyde tomorrow. Accordingly, a better gift helping to convey the denuclearization message would be a hardball as Trump needs to start playing it.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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