Reuters: North Korea casts doubt on Trump summit, suspends talks with South. The given reason is (quoting) “…denouncing military exercises between South Korea and the United States as a provocation and calling off high-level talks with Seoul.”
Of all the possible reasons, the stated one is likely to be a pretext. Diplomacy is, of course, the land of pretexts and handshakes. Reuters takes the crown for running gratuitous handshake photos. Is it because they are cheap to buy from Getty Images? Do diplomats carry hand sanitizer, or do they suffer constantly from grippe and colds? Will Trump, self described germophobe, wear latex gloves?
In spite possible indications of U.S. flexibility (WaPo, Is Mike Pompeo backing off Trump’s demand that North Korea get rid of its nukes?), Kim Jong-un has watched Trump abrogate the Iran treaty. He has likely come to realize that this administration cannot be gamed. After his useless test site is dynamited for the press, where would the game lead? The military exercises are the last chance for a decent pretext, save indisposition from illness.
Mike Pompeo’s carrot of U.S. investment is dangerous to the KIm dynasty. Kim Jong-un inherits juche, the doctrine of national self-reliance, from his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the state. In this patriarchal-to-the-extreme society, this cannot be underestimated. Unlike the carefully curated environment of the Kaesong Industrial Region, widespread private investment from western sources would expose the sheer horror of songbun, which includes a caste of slaves. North Korea is unique in the world today in the part slavery has in the political system.
Given world sensitivity towards the mere exploitation of labor in Southeast Asia, how could crimes against humanity be ignored? Even if the U.S. legitimizes North Korea, these issues remain in the broader context for the foreseeable future. Exposed by opening North Korea, they are more dangerous to the regime than starvation.
Because of their shared cultural affinities and common language, the North-South talks are dangerous to the North. Scripted or no, South negotiators would read faces and estimate intent via observations of demeanor. Direct talks with Trump, conducted in stilted language via interpreters, spare Kim at least that danger.
But if Kim has updated his assessment of Trump’s personality, he may have concluded that obfuscation by the North would lead the U.S. administration to a definite conclusion. If one plays the waiting game, this is to be avoided. There is a way out.
If the Trump-Kim meeting takes place, the military exercises form the base of a stack of complaints, a litany. The meetings could then be consumed working through the litany. One more handshake, maybe even a video, and Kim is safe for another six months. If the North refrains from the bizarre, threatening rhetoric and provocative tests , safety from a U.S. strike could become indefinite. This is the waiting game.