Nuclear North Korea dances to the Winter Games with an eager partner in Seoul

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By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON – North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is planning more missile tests even as he tries to split the historic South Korea-U.S. alliance with a skillfully worded offer of North-South dialogue and North Korean participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The widespread view here is that Kim has excited the attention of pro-Northers in the U.S. and worldwide while attempting to plant the seeds of discord between Washington and Seoul by holding out for cancellation of war games due to open in Korea next month involving thousands of American and South Korean troops. President Trump, again deriding Kim as “rocket man,” has adopted a carefully studied response, saying Kim’s offer of dialogue is “perhaps…. good news, perhaps not.”

Former Amb. John Bolton: North Korea’s offer is “nothing but propaganda to lull the gullible government of South Korea … into thinking that there is some kind of opening.”

The White House analysis of the North Korean leader, however, is that he is almost demented, crazy, not of sound mind or body, as seen in the comment by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders that President Trump and the American people in “should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea.” As evidence, Sanders noted that Kim “has tested missiles time and time again for years” and Trump is “not going to cower down and be weak” while doing his duty to “stand up and protect the American people.”

Despite those bold words, though, U.S. defense officials fear that Kim is ordering his engineers and technicians to be ready to test-fire more missiles, including a long-range ICBM of the sort that’s capable of carrying a warhead to the U.S. The worst fear is that Kim might order a seventh nuclear test if President Moon Jae-In does not demand the U.S. go along with cancellation of the war games.

U.S. defense sources say they’ve spotted signs of preparations for a missile test north of Pyongyang from which spy satellite images of the same site from which an ICBM was fired in late November. Kim, according to this scenario, would be able to modulate the tests, ordering the firing of short and mid-range missiles while South Korea hesitated on his demands for cancelling the games.

U.S. and South Korean defense officials, here and in Seoul, reportedly are in intense discussions on what to do or say with much depending on whether or how North Korea reacts in dialog that Kim has promised in his New Year’s Day speech. South Korean military people are understood to favor a tough line, as do the Americans, but have to await orders from the Blue House as relayed via the defense minister.

Much depends, say analysts, on the outcome of talks that South Korea has proposed for Jan. 9 at the truce village of Panmunjom. The fact that North and South Korea have communicated briefly on the reopening of the hotline across the DMZ would appear to indicate the talks will really happen, but no one is sure.

Considering that North and South Korean officials have not held talks for two years, U.S. officials are not at all optimistic about the outcome of these talks. In fact, they’re not even certain the North will respond favorably to the South’s proposal of the exact date and place at which to hold them.

North Korea, according to this analysis, wants to be calling the shots, that is, making the decisions on any such talks, and may well postpone the meeting and set a different date.

South Korea is so eager to open communications, if only a brief handshake and exchange of polite comments, that it’s ready to accept just about any proposal from the North.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the South Korean side is prepared to make concessions right away. It’s altogether possible, in the view of American observers, that the South Koreans will avoid any decisive assurances or moves, saying they have to discuss the North Korean proposal back in Seoul and then return to the table.

The upshot might well be a protracted process, going right to the beginning of February, with North Korea pressing its demand for cancellation of the war games and relief from sanctions.

First and foremost, the North Koreans want the U.S. and South Korea to abandon military exercises.

Pro-Northers in the U.S. are pressing U.S. officials to support just about any concession the South Korean side might recommend for the sake of the success of the Winter Olympics. In general, American pro-Northers seem ecstatic about Kim’s New Year’s speech.

“The announcement sets up a positive, nearly personal relationship between the highest authorities of the two Koreas,” said an analysis by 38 North, the well-known organization here that scrutinize events in North Korea. “It underlines in a highly unusual way that Kim Jong-Un is all in, fully and personally committed to following through on the proposal to the South in his New Year’s address.”

The 38 North analysis noted a number of positive signs showing that Kim is totally serious about wanting to deal with South Korea’s President Moon – and then coming to terms on sending a team to the Winter Olympics. That view contrasts with the analysis by John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, known for his conservative outlook.

Kim’s statement “about negotiating with South Korea is nothing but propaganda to lull the gullible government of South Korea and a lot of gullible Americans into thinking that there is some kind of opening,” Bolton wrote. Kim “knows how close he is, he will do whatever he thinks he needs now to buy just a little bit more time.”

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