BREAKING NEWS:  May 24, 2018 — Reliable sources report that Kim Jong Un has just reached out to President Trump via Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell him that he was misunderstood, and that he WANTS to meet with President Trump at the summit as planned. [China has put great deal of pressure on Kim to get back to the planned meeting. It seems to be working.] The following article was written just before this news broke, and serves as background to this bulletin. 

It should have come as no surprise that Kim Jong Un would somehow cause the June Summit between the United States and North Korea to falter. We knew he was wildly unpredictable. The surprise came when it was President Trump who announced the cancellation. 

In an extremely polite and diplomatic letter, Trump told Kim in no uncertain terms that his return to bombastic rhetoric and threats against the United States made the summit at this time “inappropriate”. He said it nicely, but there was no doubt that he was serious. He blamed his move on Kim himself, “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement”.

The anger and hostility that he referred to acknowledged the statement made the day before by Choe Son Hui, a senior official in charge of negotiations with the United States “We will neither beg the U.S. for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us …. Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at [a] nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States”.

The crux of the matter was whether or not North Korea would be allowed to continue its development of nuclear weapons. And indeed, this is exactly what was addressed in a statement, broadcast on state media, by the first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, who said, “We are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting.”  

What Kim Kye-Gwan did not and could not say was what had caused Kim’s wild swings between brutal dictator and seeker of peace. And the cause was significant. 

The Nuclear Program

Few people are talking about it, even now. What is likely to have been the catalyst for Kim Jong Un’s dramatic changes is Punggye-ri, the mountain site in North Korea in which six nuclear tests were carried out between 2006 and 2017. The policy of carrying out multiple nuclear tests inside one mountain, however huge, resulted in the structural weakening of the mountain itself. The final test in September 2017, a two-stage thermonuclear bomb, was by far the most powerful ever tested by North Korea. The blast triggered earthquakes felt more than 100 miles away. And within minutes following the blast, the tunnels that honeycombed the site began to collapse. Hundreds of workers, and first responders sent to rescue them, died in the aftermath. The force of the explosion, said to be 13 to 16 times the forces of the bomb that struck Hiroshima in 1945, made the mountain bulge sideways by about 12 feet and collapse vertically by about a foot and a half. All this was confirmed by before and after satellite photographs.

Subsequently, it was discovered that the mountain was now in danger of imploding and releasing a huge plume of radioactivity across the region. Leaks at the site had already contaminated much of the water supply in North Korea, as well as a large reservoir in southern China.  

One has only to imagine Kim’s panic when he realized that the potential collapse of Punggye-ri, the heart of his nuclear program, threatened to devolve into a nuclear disaster of massive proportions, and that the blame for the disaster would rest squarely on his shoulders. This could bring a quick end to his rule and possibly to his life. 

This could well explain why Kim did a 180 degree turnaround, and expressed his willingness to open relations with South Korea, why he released three American hostages, and why he agreed to participate in a summit with President Trump. In a face-saving statement, Kim explained to the world why North Korea was now willing to give up its nuclear ambitions. He said, quite simply, that its nuclear program had accomplished its goals. “We achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017…. We have created a mighty sword for defending peace, as desired by all our people, who had to tighten their belts for long years.” 

What he did not say was that his program had been terminated by his own greed for nuclear power at whatever cost. The imminent collapse of the massive mountain itself and the resulting radioactive contamination of North Korea’s water supply was enough to convince Kim that his nuclear program was ruined and that he himself was in danger if he did not find another route to maintain his power and perceived prestige.  

Kim announced that Punggye-ri would be permanently sealed. On May 24, the closure of the toxic mountain Punggye-ri was accomplished. The north, east, south, and west portals were all blown up and sealed. 

But this was a decoy, because even as this plan was announced, satellite photos revealed heightened activity at a second nuclear site, 65 miles north of Punggye-ri  and close to the border with Russia. The revelations indicated Kim’s return to his nuclear program. Whether with the assistance of its nuclear partner, Iran, or with help from China, North Korea could now recover its earlier activities and Kim no longer needed to humble himself at the negotiating table with Trump. North Korean officials declared that they would not be surrendering their nuclear program in exchange for economic concessions.

President Trump’s pre-emptive letter was strong, to the point, and exactly what was called for in the situation. He blasted Kim for threating the U.S. with a nuclear showdown. Any show of weakness on Trump’s part would only further encourage Kim’s intransigence, with the dangerous possibility of turning harsh rhetoric into the stupidity of a nuclear challenge.

China is an unknown factor in this unfolding drama. Reliable sources report that China has warned Kim and threatened his continued leadership if he does not get back on track with summit talks. 

The forces of international politics are played in multi-dimensions with an infinite number of moving parts. There is no way of knowing for sure whether the meeting between Trump and Kim will ever take place. Here are my predictions:

  • The pressures on Kim to show up to a meeting with Trump will continue to build. 
  • Trump will continue to hold a strong hand to force Kim to the table. His hand will be a maximum pressure campaign on North Korea, including economic and financial sanctions; the U.S. negotiations with China; pressure put on Kim’s nuclear partner, Iran; and the threat of nuclear war.
  • Pressure will also come from China, whose intervention will help take advantage of the ongoing trade talks with the U.S. 
  • The combined pressure from both the United States and China will force Kim to the table, and the summit will take place. But the terms will be largely set by the Trump team, with relatively minor concessions made to Kim, to enable him to save face. 

Despite the complexity of the ‘game’ being played out, there is the possibility that it will lead to a breakthrough that will not only bring Kim to the table but will lead to the process of stabilizing, denuclearizing, and integrating the Korean peninsula. One of the wild cards will be how China may interfere, influence, or otherwise change the game in order to further its own agenda. If a negotiation does create a unified Korea, the greatest challenge will be how to integrate the two countries without destroying South Korea’s democracy, while bringing North Korea into the twenty-first century. 

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst and advisor in intelligence-led counter-terrorism solutions. Trained in Israel, where she lived and worked for sixteen years, she returned to the U.S., and served as CEO of Gerard Group International in Massachusetts until 2009. Since then, Ilana has been an independent consultant, working with major corporations and government agencies on security issues. Her global network of specialists and field assets provides an ongoing resource of critical, real-time intelligence and domain expertise. Ilana is the author of many articles on the terrorist threat to America and the West, and four books on Islamic terrorism.