The Dog that Hasn't Barked Yet (North Korea)

04/13/20 11:07AM EDT

Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst General Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email sales@hedgeye.com.

The Dog that Hasn't Barked Yet (North Korea) - north korea 3340884 1280

As projections of the global pandemic worsen, it's hardly surprising that analysts of all stripes are working overtime to look for diplomatic opportunities that might emerge from the crisis. As I wrote two weeks ago, respected international policy veterans like Vali Nasr of Brookings - joined recently by his colleague Michael O'Hanlon, former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and many others - have offered up not just Iran, but also Afghanistan, North Korea, and even Venezuela as opportunistic examples.  

To be clear, these are all enormous diplomatic long shots. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is investing heavily and personally in the Afghanistan drama, for example; even with his involvement, and some signs of movement of late, the parties remain sharply divided, with prospects bleak. Candidly, the other "opportunities" - notwithstanding our effort two weeks ago to broker a Caracas deal to oust President Nicolas Maduro - are similarly depressing.

But the North Korea case is intriguing. To be clear, a Trump-Kim Jong Un breakthrough is not on the immediate horizon!  And since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Kim has test-launched at least four short-range missiles.  

However, events since December - and a Pyongyang "dog that hasn't barked" since then - suggest a fleeting opportunity.  

    • Recall, Kim was pressing the tension envelope at the end of 2019, promising a New Year's "surprise." Nothing happened. Korean experts then speculated that the surprise (a nuclear test or an ICBM launch) would occur on the birthday of Kim's father in February; again, nothing.
    • Add to this President Trump's letter to Kim Jong Un last month, offering assistance on the coronavirus; surprisingly, this elicited an overly generous official North Korean response.  These developments in combination hint that a narrow diplomatic window just might be opening. 

If true, how might the two sides use this potential moment? To start, it would help for the White House to shelve thoughts of the "big deal" and move incrementally. Last year's disastrous summit in Vietnam was held despite strong misgivings by Mike Pompeo and Special Emissary Steve Biegun on the Trump "everything now" approach.

The alternative diplomatic route? Step-by-step, i.e., Pyongyang verifiably gives up its ability to make bombs, and we work for a partial lifting of international sanctions, along with an aid offer. At this moment, the move just might be enticing to Kim, particularly if North Korean's medical system is collapsing on top of an economic implosion.

A major problem, of course? China. They will want to play in any U.S.-Pyongyang opening; and given the recent frostiness in our relations with Beijing, they're unlikely to step forward here and help. 

Bottom line: amidst the sadness and drama surrounding COVID-19, some diplomatic openings might well emerge over the coming months that are a cause for optimism. Despite the long odds, it's worth watching the hermit kingdom over the coming weeks, to see if the dog stays mute and the White House and Kim Jong Un follow up with other, more substantive letters of love.

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ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN

LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.

He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.

Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.

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