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Is Donald Trump's North Korea strategy working?

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year's Day speech ...

Posted: Jan 5, 2018 7:45 PM
Updated: Jan 5, 2018 7:45 PM

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year's Day speech that he was prepared to "melt the frozen north-south relations," to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been "firm, strong and willing to commit our total 'might' against the North."

He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

Pyongyang's anxieties are evident from Kim Jong Un's speech, most of which focused on the economy. Agriculture and fisheries, he said, "need an upswing," while light industry should save electricity and also produce more goods with local materials. This means that supplies of food, power and imported raw materials are all problematic.

So, to the extent that these problems are due to US-inspired sanctions (they were also caused by a severe drought last year and by the inefficiencies of North Korea's unreformed economy), President Trump has a point.

But President Trump's unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang's decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump's talk of military action.

So, Pyongyang probably hopes not only to ease its economic problems by persuading South Korea to slacken its implementation of sanctions (South Korea's seizure last month of two vessels caught illegally transhipping oil to North Korean vessels will have alarmed Pyongyang) and perhaps to give it some direct economic assistance, but also by warming relations with a key US ally to reduce the risk of a surprise US strike on its facilities.

But that does not explain the timing of the North Korean announcement. Its change in tone was sudden. The North Koreans gave Feltman no reason to think that they were open to talks with anyone, and as late as December 30, North Korea's state media published a fiery policy document warning the US does "not expect any change in (the DPRK's) policy." Two days later, Kim Jong Un did just that. Why?

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December, probably to say that North Korea would take part in the Olympics if the postponement was confirmed (which, following a conversation between President Moon and President Trump, it now has been). But there is more than this. Kim Jong Un warned South Korea against "joining the United States in its reckless moves for a north-targeted nuclear war." When the two sides meet on January 9, it is likely that the North will press the South to take a more independent line in an effort to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, a major North Korean strategic objective.

So, the talks will be delicate. To give the North Koreans too little would risk the door slamming shut again, but to give them too much could undermine the sanctions regime that remains the single best hope for persuading Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programs. But if (a big if) all goes well, they might just lead to wider talks. Kim Jong Un's speech was surprisingly gentle on the United States. He used no language stronger than the colorful reference to his nuclear button -- mild by North Korean standards -- and sanctions were not even mentioned. (His speech was much shorter than usual. Were condemnations of the United States cut at the last minute?).

Is he signaling that, if talks with the South go well, he just might talk with the United States, too? And if so, will he pause his nuclear and missile tests?

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 486434

Reported Deaths: 6575
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1009131586
Ramsey43165803
Dakota36375392
Anoka33335388
Washington22121258
Stearns18752201
St. Louis14822263
Scott13308107
Wright12538116
Olmsted1181788
Sherburne874172
Carver775640
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Rice670791
Blue Earth596635
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Crow Wing521282
Chisago499545
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Benton447790
Winona418549
Mower405731
Douglas393368
Nobles387247
Goodhue386269
Polk343763
McLeod340049
Beltrami338651
Morrison324747
Itasca313646
Lyon313644
Becker312542
Isanti306756
Steele301511
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Pine282016
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Todd248330
Brown245537
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Grant4918
Norman4788
Unassigned44568
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Cook1180

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 335218

Reported Deaths: 5443
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk51785551
Linn19463313
Scott17080210
Black Hawk14924292
Woodbury13778212
Johnson1312174
Dubuque12416194
Dallas1019092
Pottawattamie9828143
Story959345
Warren511674
Clinton500784
Cerro Gordo498882
Webster494487
Sioux479169
Marshall463072
Des Moines427161
Muscatine424191
Buena Vista412237
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Jasper386266
Plymouth367478
Lee354252
Marion339869
Jones284654
Henry279637
Bremer268754
Carroll266349
Crawford252235
Boone242830
Benton240354
Washington239047
Mahaska215246
Jackson209738
Dickinson202440
Tama202365
Kossuth198055
Delaware185540
Clay183825
Winneshiek182827
Fayette178635
Page177819
Buchanan176929
Wright173831
Hamilton173742
Cedar171523
Hardin169439
Harrison167169
Clayton159854
Butler158831
Mills147920
Floyd147741
Poweshiek147730
Lyon145541
Cherokee145336
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Iowa139423
Hancock137630
Grundy132030
Winnebago130231
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Jefferson128334
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Louisa122341
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Ida81032
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Osceola68215
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Taylor64112
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