For a man who rules what is arguably the most isolated nation-state in the world, Kim Jong Un certainly has a penchant for attention. His actions and words seem crafted and timed specifically to attract a generous fraction of the world’s focus. North Korean missile tests produce headlines across the world, as well as producing high amounts of anxiety in places like Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington DC. Rumors of Jong Un’s opponents…real and imagined… having been purged from the government or executed outright both fascinates and repulses a global audience. When it comes to events in Asia, whether they be economic, geopolitical, social, or military, there is always a ‘North Korean angle’ to consider. North Korea has been desperately seeking attention and recognition for the better part of the last twenty years. Unfortunately for it, the attention it has received has been overwhelmingly negative.
Pyongyang had an opportunity to perhaps change that trend in the near future. Informal talks had been scheduled to take place later this week in New York City between North Korean government representatives and a delegation of former US officials with expertise on North Korea. Plans were in motion and a limited level of guarded optimism was growing that the talks could provide an opportunity for both sides to determine if some form of diplomatic middle ground exists for both sides to build from. Although the talks would probably not result in anything grand, it would be a start.
But then North Korean agents arranged and carried out a hit on Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s current leader, likely on the orders of Un. The incident occurred at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 13 February, 2017. To make matters even worse, the North Koreans used VX nerve agent, a very effective and deadly chemical weapon. So, to summarize, not only did North Korean agents carry out a murder in a foreign country, they used a weapon of mass destruction as the murder weapon. The Malaysian government made the announcement on Friday that VX was found to be used in the attack. North Korea denies this, of course. In the hours after the Malaysian announcement was made, the US decided to deny a visa to Choe Son-hui, the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s director-general on North American affairs. This cancelled the scheduled talks and most likely put them on the back burner permanently.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, President Trump said he would be open to meeting with Kim Jong Un at some point, though he admitted the chances of an actual meeting were slim. With the new glut of negative attention North Korea is receiving from the Malaysian incident, the likelihood of frank discussions between the US and North Korea is very low. This hurts Pyongyang especially hard as China is about to make an attempt to persuade the US to hold talks with North Korea.
Now, instead of making progress finding some common ground with the US, Pyongyang finds itself weathering another storm of its own making, and defiantly denying accusations of its involvement in the Malaysian incident despite a growing mountain of evidence that suggests otherwise.