Entry 74: A Mysterious Train Ride
Editor’s Note: This is the 74th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
Distraction of the day: reports that Kim Jong Un may be in Beijing. Color me skeptical.
Why would that be a big deal?
Kim hasn’t left North Korea since taking power. If the reports are true, he’s making the ultimate gesture to curry favor with Xi Jinping. It could be the restoration of an anti-U.S. strategic alignment. It would also be a big deal because it would be an indicator that reveals stuff about Kim Jong Un personally—the security of his rule, his confidence in his very predictable diplomatic pivot, and his willingness to risk personal safety in the name of his foreign policy strategy. It would suggest Kim is comfortable with high-stakes gambling, and may even believe that he’s good at gambling.
What evidence do we have that Kim is in Beijing?
Not much as yet. The informed speculation of anonymous sources mostly. The closest thing to “smoking gun” evidence we have is sightings of a bullet-proof train pulling into Beijing and a video of a very long convoy of cars that included an ambulance. As far as I know, senior level regime officials never travel this way. Not even his sister. So something’s up.
So why am I skeptical?
I’m not saying it’s not Kim, I’m just saying I’m not willing to accept the claim on the basis of a convoy and a bullet train. It generally pays to be skeptical when it comes to North Korea.
But specifically, Kim has legitimate reason to worry about being assassinated—by the United States (even though that would be illegal), by China, or by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. Leaving North Korea gives all his enemies their best chance at taking him out. If I were him, that would be the foremost consideration preventing me from leaving the country.
Kim also has to worry about what happens to his regime while he’s gone. If Kim were in Beijing, it would be a strong indication that he believed he’s successfully coup-proofed the regime for now. He has eliminated hundreds of senior officials. Maybe that makes him feel secure enough at home to leave. Certainly plausible. But it’s always seemed just as likely to me that his mass purges and assassinations of regime officials reflect his paranoia and insecurity. He’s in control, but who other than a megalomaniac could feel secure in that position?
Also, the optics of Kim making a pilgrimage to Beijing don’t quite comport with the ego-centric cultism of the Kim regime. It makes much more sense to send a high-level dignitary to Beijing and have Xi Jinping visit Pyongyang (however unlikely that may be).
If Kim didn’t visit Beijing, how else do we explain the inferential evidence that suggests he is?
Boom. Good question. It could be a high-level regime official who—contrary to the norm—got the bells and whistles while paying homage to Xi Jinping. Perhaps to inflate the stature of the emissary so Beijing didn’t feel like it was getting shafted. It could also be a denial and deception operation in which we’re made to think the convoy has Kim but really he’s coming in separately under a different cover. Or it could be a dry run for a potential future Kim visit; make sure everything runs correctly and nobody tries to pull an assault on the convoy.
To me, any of these explanations for the convoy and the bulletproof train are plausible, though there may be additional explanations I’m not thinking of. The point though, is that it’s a bit of a leap to conclude Kim was aboard simply because North Korean senior officials don’t usually travel in such big entourages.
What does a Kim visit say about U.S. strategy?
Above all, it would suggest that maximum pressure has helped bring China and North Korea together, which is really, really bad strategy. Contrary to the American tendency to think of North Korea as a Chinese satellite, Pyongyang has always been an independent actor; it doesn’t take orders from China.
Bringing Beijing and Pyongyang closer together undermines U.S. strategy and makes it much more likely that China waters down the implementation of sanctions. North Korea’s making a bid to rejoin polite society with nukes; that involves reconciliation with Beijing and Seoul. Reconciliation with Washington would be decisive, but it wouldn’t be worth denuclearization. The most secure move is get Beijing and Seoul on side while flirting with Washington but ultimately staying faithful to your nukes.
It’s also possible that Kim wants to explain to Xi Jinping—whether personally or through an emissary—what North Korea really conveyed to South Korea about both the willingness to denuclearize and meet with Trump. As I’ve tried to reason previously, there’s more to the story about Kim wanting to meet Trump than what we’ve been told. Perhaps Kim wants to preemptively clear the air with Xi before Trump blames Kim for a failed summit or accusations of being a no-show.
Between this Kim-to-Beijing parlor game and my deadline to prepare remarks for a conference taking place tomorrow, I still somehow wrote 730 words in a little over an hour. The words flowed, but I once again dedicated less time to writing than I wanted. Argh!
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.