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Fiery rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. seems to be cooling down, if temporarily. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday the U.S. is “interested” in dialogue, analysts believe Kim Jong Un’s latest propaganda statement may offer a hint of de-escalation. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.
Weeks of fiery rhetoric and escalating threats over North Korea are showing signs of cooling, at least for the day.
In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is interested in dialogue. And, in Pyongyang, the tone of Kim Jong-un's messages seem to maintain the same belligerent tone, but reading between the lines, analysts believe his latest statements may also be trying to de-escalate tensions with the U.S.
Special correspondent Nick Schifrin tries to decode North Korea's propaganda.
In his military's strategic forces' H.Q., a commander in chief studies his options. His generals reveal a plan to test-fire missiles near the enemy's strategically important base. The target is on the wall, the U.S.' Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
The narrator promises — quote — "enveloping fire."
WOMAN (through interpreter):
U.S. imperialists put the noose around their necks due to their reckless military confrontations.
That sounds ominous, but the sentence continues:
He added, he would keep an eye on the foolish and stupid conduct of the Americans.
ROBERT CARLIN, Stanford University:
The signal that he's dialing things back again.
For 33 years, Robert Carlin studied North Korea for the U.S. government. He visited the country more than 25 times, and he says Kim might be signaling he wants a diplomatic path.
You can get distracted by language which really isn't important, and read right over what is significant, and how it's supposed to click together. Are we in a period like that now? I hope so.
Often, the West focuses on North Korea's hyperbolic propaganda. Videos show North Korea preparing for war, targeting the White House and being able to destroy the Capitol. Propaganda aimed at children depict kids destroying a large-nosed U.S. soldier. Paintings in a Pyongyang museum depict a U.S. soldier pulling out a North Korean woman's tooth.
Demonizing the U.S. helps an authoritarian regime rally its population. It might those seem those rallies are preparations for conflict. But on the streets of Pyongyang, there is no crisis. So, despite all the rhetoric, North Korea seems not to want war.
They didn't go on alert. They didn't mobilize the population. There's a difference between policy and propaganda.
Take the July 4 launch. Kim celebrated North Korea's first ever launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. And in a statement, he said North Korea would put — quote — "neither its nukes nor its rockets on the table for negotiations, unless hostile U.S. policy was terminated."
If you read that, it reads like a negative. But it's not a negative. It's actually — if you know the history of this stuff, it's actually a positive, because it's the first time that Kim has publicly said, oh, incidentally, there is a possibility that these things would go on the table.
That offer of negotiating its rockets and nuclear program has been repeated multiple times since. And it's exactly that offer that some North Korea watchers consider a ruse.
SUNG-YOON LEE, Tufts University:
The latest de-escalation, illusory as it may be, is a prelude to a provocation.
Sung-Yoon Lee is an assistant professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School. He says North Korea acts over the top, so when it seems to behave, it receives concessions.
North Korea, in acting crazy, or funny, even, bizarre, I think, achieves its strategic goal of getting the U.S. to take North Korea lightly, go back to damage control diplomacy, for the sake of getting North Korea out of the headlines for a few months. And all along, North Korea is able to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.
And all along, as the U.S. has been focusing on the military aspects, Kim has advanced North Korea's economy. And that has helped solidify his hold on power.
Because, if you look at the policies that he has followed since he came in, over the last six years, they are not erratic, they are not crazy, and they are producing results.
On organized and controlled trips, the government shows off prosperous businesses like catfish farms. Kim Jong-un has liberalized the economy, so owners of companies like this one can control their own profits.
And the government also showed off a new luxury shopping and housing district. North Koreans gawked at the Pyongyang's tallest buildings. A government official said this street was more powerful than 100 nuclear warheads.
I hadn't been there previously for about seven years. I was flabbergasted at the change in Pyongyang, the growth, the vitality of the city.
Kim's been called crazy. He is ruthless, but long-term North Korea watchers see an economy that's improved and messaging, even if exaggerated, that's nuanced, which means, despite what it may seem, there is method to North Korea's madness.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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