Connie Kim and Oh Taek-sung of the VOA Korean Service contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is using a divide-and-conquer tactic in an effort to detach President Donald Trump from Seoul and his own government by using both missile threats and an apologetic letter, said experts, all to secure sanctions relief.
The launch came hours after Pyongyang rejected South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s offer to resume inter-Korean talks that have lost momentum. North Korea has cooled on Moon playing a mediating role in Pyongyang’s diplomacy with Washington since Kim failed to secure sanctions relief from Trump at the Hanoi summit in February.
Deriding South Korea's Moon
Pyongyang called Moon “senseless” to think inter-Korean talks would resume upon the conclusion of the military drills that began last Monday with the U.S.
Yet, in what appears to be a flip-flop by Pyongyang, Kim sent a letter to Trump expressing his desire to resume talks with the U.S. when joint drills end. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since Hanoi.
Trump said last Saturday Kim sent him “a very beautiful letter” and tweeted that Kim offered a “small apology for testing the short-range missiles” referring to recent launches.
Trump said Kim “would like to meet and start negotiations as soon as the joint U.S./South Korea joint exercises are over.” Kim said “this test would stop when the exercises end,” according to Trump’s tweet.
A few hours after Trump announced Kim’s apology letter, North Korea fired two more missiles, in an apparent expression of anger at joint U.S. and South Korea activities that went ahead despite previous launches used by Pyongyang to demand a stop to the drills.
Kim trying to split Trump, Pentagon
Douglas Paal, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “I sense that Kim is playing on Trump’s frequently expressed aversion to military exercises.” Paal continued, “[Kim] is trying to split the president and the Defense Department, an old tactic made easier by the current president’s preoccupations.”
Paal said Kim “wants to have the upper hand” before agreeing to resume talks with Washington on denuclearization where Kim will mostly like ask for sanctions relief.
“This is transactional tactical maneuvering by the weaker party, one who needs relief from sanctions very badly,” Paal said.
Trump seemed to share Kim’s distaste for joint drills when he described them in a tweet Aug. 10 as “ridiculous and expensive” and said Kim complained about the exercises in the letter. Trump has often expressed his disapproval for joint drills with South Korea. At the Singapore summit held in June 2018, Trump said the exercises are “provocative” and “expensive” and ordered that they be halted.
“It is a self-defeating and self-indulgent message that undermines the U.S. and South Korean positions on the Peninsula,” said Paal, adding Trump’s Aug. 10 tweet was “irrationally concessionary to North Korea.”
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said, “This is a dangerous mixed message that Trump is sending,” He added, “It shows Kim that a wedge can be driven between the U.S. and [South Korea].”
Experts said Trump’s statements expressing his dislike for joint military drills are providing opportunities for Kim to engage the tactic of divide and conquer.
The old military and political strategy described by Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian philosopher, in his book, The Art of War, is aimed at breaking a large adversary force into smaller partitions and attacking the pieces separately to conquer them individually.
For Kim, the aim of his apology letter, according to experts, would be to create a division between Washington and Seoul by betting on Trump’s dislike for joint drills.
A wedge between Trump, Pentagon
Michael O’Hanlon, research director at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said, “North Korea senses that [the] United States under President Trump may decide to do something like weaken the alliance [with Seoul] in response so it creates an opportunity for North Korea.”
At the same time, Kim is further attempting to divide Washington by “trying to play Trump against his own government,” according to Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“What Kim is doing is not only driving a wedge between allies but driving a wedge between Trump and his own administration,” Manning said. “If you ask U.S. forces in Korea or the Department of Defense about these exercises, they will tell you they are vital, and if you ask Trump, they are a waste of money and they are too expensive.”
Military experts view joint military exercises as crucial to maintaining the allied forces’ readiness in a way that transcends dollar value.
David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies, said, “The training is the linchpin of the alliance.” He added that Trump “is focused on transactional, on monetary aspect and not shared value, shared interest, and shared strategy to face common threats.”
Contradicting Trump’s claim, Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., said the drills are “not an expensive activity.” Bennett continued, the exercises “may be the most cost-efficient way” to train U.S. and South Korean militaries together.
Setting stage for sanctions relief
Experts said Kim’s effort to separate Trump from Seoul and Washington is to set the stage for negotiating for sanctions relief, something Kim knows only Trump would grant.
“Kim is apologizing in order to set the tone with President Trump for after the exercises when the two leaders may meet again,” Gause said. “He is still looking for sanctions relief, and he wants to make sure that he doesn’t upset Trump too much since he knows that Trump is the only person who can agree to such sanctions relief.”
Trump is not “being savvy in his negotiating approach,” according to O’Hanlon, and the author of The Art of the Deal might end up without an agreement. He says that is what happened at the Hanoi summit when Trump walked away from striking a deal that fell short of Washington’s expectation for full denuclearization.
“I see no progress towards a deal and no headway even in deciding what kind of deal the U.S. would accept,” O’Hanlon said.
National Security Adviser John Bolton said in an interview with VOA, North Korea is “making a very big mistake” if it thinks it could gain economic benefits to “rescue their economy, stabilize leadership” but “fail to honor [its] commitments on the nuclear side.”