The office was refurbished at considerable cost to South Korea following the 2018 inter-Korean Summit, and was intended to function as a virtual embassy between the two Koreas. Its destruction was an unmistakable indication of North Korea’s displeasure with its neighbour, and a dramatic end to two years of pageantry and hope.
Tensions between the Koreas have been rising after the north protested the launch of anti-North Korean propaganda-filled balloons and plastic bottles into North Korea by South Korean civic groups. Just three days before the liaison office’s demolition, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, specifically threatened its destruction.
North Korea, clearly sensitive to the anti-regime flyers, has abandoned expectations of meaningful sanctions relief or economic benefits from South Korea. It may also be trying to bolster the credentials of Kim Yo-jong, just months after she was speculated to be a potential successor to Kim Jong-un following rumours of his demise.
However, these alone do not fully explain what appears to be a deliberate series of actions intended by North Korea to draw attention by ratcheting up tensions on the peninsula.
To fully comprehend the current situation in North Korea, one must understand developments over the past two years. In late 2017, it appeared increasingly possible there would be some form of conflagration between the United States and North Korea.
This stemmed from a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests that had, both in their range and demonstrated capability, convinced White House national security planners that North Korea posed an unacceptably high direct risk to the American homeland.
US President Donald Trump openly derided the North Korean leader as “little rocket man”, and threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. It was this that led Kim Beazley and me to warn of the potentially dire consequences.
Instead, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, facing the risk of a conflict that could draw the Korean peninsula into war, and an escalatory cycle over which he would have little direct influence, scrambled to diffuse the situation.
Latching onto a few positive elements in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, South Korea welcomed a North Korean cheering team led by none other than Kim Yo-jong to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics.
This in turn opened the door to the full-body embrace between the two Korean leaders at the inter-Korean Summit two months later, and the Singapore-based US-North Korean Summit in June 2018.
But despite a small number of follow-on meetings, that is where the progress ended.
Trump, always more concerned with theatrics than substance, asserted a North Korean commitment to denuclearisation that was not apparent to anyone outside his administration, and returned home.
The question is, what does North Korea want?
It wants to be accepted and recognised as a nuclear power. It also wants to secure sanctions release and economic benefits, despite having reversed none of the actions or policies that led to the imposition of those sanctions in the first place.
In addition, there is increasing evidence that North Korea has not been immune from the ravages of coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, the economic global economic downturn will also have an impact on an already weak North Korean economy.
In this context, North Korea appears to be returning to its tried and true approach of instigating international tensions as a way of forging greater domestic solidarity in the face of ongoing economic privation.
The danger now, as always, is the risk of a North Korean miscalculation, particularly in an uncertain international environment. There is evidence Pyongyang had already dismissed the US, and had no expectations for further progress until after the US elections. This latest act of aggression indicates they have likewise now written off South Korea.
Unfortunately, the longer-term questions surrounding North Korea remain unsolved by the summits with South Korea or the US. It is increasingly apparent that even if we get through 2020 without further incident, we will still be facing a North Korea that is more capable and more dangerous.
If the most recent actions are any indication, it may also be more desperate than it was when we issued a stark warning two years ago.
Sunday’s trilateral meeting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae In made for compelling viewing, the latest chapter in Korean peninsula summit diplomacy.
Indeed, such a meeting would have been unthinkable only 18 months ago. It was an unprecedented event – the leaders of the US, South Korea and North Korea meeting together, especially in the DMZ.
Critics have argued, however, that the meeting was merely a heavily manicured photo-op. While heavy on symbolism, it covered nothing substantive and signalled only that the parties are willing to restart the negotiating process.
A couple of major questions remain unanswered. First, what is the ultimate purpose of negotiations? Are the US, North Korea and South Korea talking about the same thing when they talk about “denuclearisation”?
And is the endgame of negotiations ultimately about denuclearisation, or is it about reaching a permanent peace settlement to formally end the Korean War?
These kinds of symbolic gestures are the foundation upon which negotiations can move forward, given that all parties are starting from a place of mutual mistrust. Without this kind of patient state-to-state relationship building, the US and North Korea will never reach a stage where more substantive issues can be discussed.
The symbolism is also important in signalling intent to the public in all three countries. For the US and South Korea, building domestic support for engagement is key to the ultimate ratification of any future agreement.
We also need to place the DMZ meeting in the proper context. There are several parallel games at play in which the US, North Korea and South Korea have diverging interests.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program represents a threat to America’s nuclear weapons supremacy – both in and of itself, and as an example to other countries that might seek to develop their own nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear-armed North Korea also demonstrates the diminished authority of the US as a regional and global power.
We see the CVID game at play in the rhetorical commitment of the US government to denuclearising the DPRK, despite the evidence that CVID has thus far failed, and in the pushback against Trump for his perceived willingness to sacrifice this aim in order to reach a deal with Kim.
The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea, meanwhile, involves the full relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all nuclear powers, including the US.
With this in mind, the Kim government is committing to a negotiating process from which it can obtain sweeteners, not an end goal.
This leads into the second game at play: Kim’s quest to modernise the North Korean economy, which is important to the legitimacy and longevity of his government. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program was developed as a security umbrella under which the government can move forward with economic modernisation, while minimising the risk of state collapse.
As such, the North Koreans are likely to seek an easing of economic sanctions and economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy in negotiations with the US.
One way to achieve these objectives is by stretching the negotiating process out for as long as possible – this allows the North Koreans to secure incentives for small concessions over a longer-term, incremental negotiating process.
The race to develop the North
The third game relates to the potential opening of North Korea to foreign investment. Kim’s economic modernisation drive means that extensive opportunities for infrastructure development will emerge for foreign investors when the political climate eventually warms sufficiently.
The contours of a contest to develop North Korea are beginning to coalesce, with South Korean, Chinese and Russian companies jockeying for position to develop this relatively untapped space.
Moon, for one, sees this engagement strategy as part of South Korea’s broader push to integrate northeast Asia through economic and infrastructure linkages, such as gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of this emerged in last year’s Panmunjom Declaration, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ.
A peace settlement, or at least a negotiating process towards that end, is the magic key that could unlock possibilities for infrastructure development in North Korea. This would remove economic sanctions as an obstacle to investment and reduce the political and economic risk for investors.
Trump’s unique diplomatic style
Finally, the fourth game relates to Trump himself. His businesslike approach to diplomacy and penchant for policy-by-Twitter are far removed from longstanding US diplomatic practices, in both style and substance.
Trump’s desire to reach an agreement with Kim has brought him to the brink of relinquishing the US demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” by the North.
While one could argue, as I have, that CVID has long been a fantasy anyway, Trump’s apparent willingness to make concessions on this front puts him at odds with many in his administration and within the broader US foreign policy establishment.
This may explain one notable absentee from Trump’s entourage in South Korea – National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was dispatched to Mongolia instead. Bolton’s hardline stance on North Korea is well known, so his absence was significant. In February, the North Korean media criticised Bolton for trying to be a spoiler in the negotiations in Hanoi.
More work to be done
Engagement with the North is hugely preferable to the uneasy status quo on the Korean peninsula that carries with it a heightened risk of conflict escalation. However, for this engagement to continue, the parties need an agreed purpose to keep negotiations moving forward.
The DMZ leaders’ meeting shows just how far apart the interests of the US, South Korea and North Korea are, and how much work needs to be done to build trust and align the parties to a basic common goal.
Handshakes and symbolism only go so far. Eventually, the parties will need to work towards something more concrete for the process to be sustained.
Korea-watchers around the world are scrambling to tease out the meaning of the abruptly concluded US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. I want to cast a critical eye on denuclearisation itself as the framing objective of the summit negotiations.
If we step back for a moment to look at the extraordinary developments in Korean Peninsula diplomacy over the past year, we see three parties who want different things.
The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea remembers all too well the chaos of 2017 that brought Korea to the brink of war, and sees a permanent peace regime as the most important objective of its engagement efforts.
For their part, the North Koreans want to neutralise the military threat from the US, see sanctions lifted, and obtain economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy. The Trump administration, and much of the broader US foreign policy establishment, remains attached to the denuclearisation of North Korea as the end game of this process.
But denuclearisation is a fantasy that is leaving Washington as the odd man out on the Korean Peninsula. The goalposts on the Korean Peninsula are changing as the momentum for inter-Korean engagement grows, while the importance of the US as the indispensable security guarantor is diminishing.
Who walked out on whom?
Like everyone else, I will be watching closely over the coming days as details begin to emerge about the sticking points that led to the abrupt conclusion of the summit.
In the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, the Trump administration did signal some flexibility on verification measures for full, independent accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program as a condition for further negotiation.
It is ironic that Trump’s apparent willingness to befriend authoritarian leaders has opened the door for negotiations for a permanent peace regime in Korea, which previous US administrations had kept quarantined behind the demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID).
However, in his final press conference in Hanoi, the US president indicated that the North Korean delegation asked for too much in requesting the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
Considering the enormous pressure Trump has come under from domestic quarters not to sell out the denuclearisation agenda, there was no way the US delegation could accept those terms.
But there is another possibility. The Congressional testimony of Michael Cohen from Washington may have created fresh doubts in the minds of the North Korean delegation about Trump’s ability to deliver on a deal. It is possible that Kim Jong-un presented terms they knew the Americans could not accept, to avoid the possibility of a lame-duck deal negotiated by a compromised president.
It is important to recognise that the US and North Korea run at different political speeds. Since 1945, North Korea’s three Kims have presided through 13 US presidents. US presidents are confined to term limits and captive to the political demands of relatively short election cycles. The now extreme polarisation of American politics ensures that promises made by Trump may not be honoured by an incoming administration.
With a US presidential election looming in 2020 and widespread criticism within the American foreign policy establishment of Trump’s negotiating position, and with recurring allegations of criminality fuelling calls for his impeachment, it is understandable that the North Koreans might be cautious about making concessions.
They will remember the failure of the US Congress to ratify the Agreed Framework when President Bill Clinton was facing impeachment during the 1990s.
The denuclearisation of North Korea is a fantasy
Regardless of who blinked first, the failure to reach agreement in Hanoi further demonstrates that North Korea will never willingly denuclearise. This is not a secret. It has been obvious for more than a decade, since the failure of the Six-Party Talks. Beyond the economic sanctions regime, there is very little the US can do about it.
successive US administrations have considered and rejected the use of military force against North Korea on the grounds that it poses an unacceptable risk to its ally in South Korea
because of the longstanding sanctions regime, the US lacks sufficient economic leverage over the DPRK to bring it to heel, even with the expansive list of goods banned from export to the North, and the expansive powers of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to restrict financial flows in and out of the DPRK
North Korea is adept at sanctions-busting, in spite of the squeeze being placed on the country by existing measures.
Holding out for denuclearisation as an end game is an exercise in futility. It is bad policy. It unnecessarily backs the US into a corner of weakness where it cannot bring its obvious strategic and economic advantages to bear.
Denuclearisation has been the obstacle that has kept the US and North Korea at the stage of talking about talking, halting progress on other confidence-building measures that could improve the relationship and take some of the heat out of the Korean Peninsula security dilemma.
Missed opportunity for a peace settlement
The dominant school of thought in disarmament circles is that states that acquire nuclear weapons are a threat to international peace and security, and so must be prevented from doing so. This is the denuclearisation perspective that has dominated the discourse on North Korea in the US and informed the longstanding CVID policy.
There is an clear logic here that stems from the terrible and awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, with which few could argue. From this perspective, any negotiations with North Korea that do not result in full nuclear relinquishment will be interpreted as a sell-out.
However, there is also an obvious hypocrisy in this position (and in the nuclear non-proliferation regime more generally) given the size of the US nuclear arsenal and the deliberate ambiguity of its doctrine around nuclear first-strike. It is this hypocrisy that the DPRK exploits in its official interpretation of denuclearisation as meaning the universal relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all countries.
There is another school of thought that it is not nuclear weapons per se that represent a threat to international peace and security. Rather, it is an international environment teeming with existential threats in which states feel compelled to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves.
From this perspective, a peace declaration could diminish the level of insecurity that feeds the desire for nuclear proliferation. If the perception of imminent threat lessens, then the probability of nuclear weapons use in the event of conflict is also reduced.
There is space within this perspective to work towards nuclear disarmament. But that goal is one element of a bigger picture. This is the essence of the South Korean position on inter-Korean summit diplomacy, and the fading shadow of a missed opportunity in Hanoi.
These summits are part of a long-term peace-building process. Clearly, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are not on the same page in their negotiating objectives.
If US-DPRK bilateral negotiations are to continue, they are going to have to find a lowest common denominator on which they can build. Regardless of how we feel about Kim Jong-un, the political system he presides over, and the abuses of his regime, denuclearisation is never going to be the lowest common denominator upon which the US-DPRK relationship can evolve.
Moments after President Donald Trump shook North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s hand for the first time, Trump pronounced: “We will have a terrific relationship.”
Trump’s snap judgment fulfilled his prediction before the June 12 summit that he would be able to evaluate Kim’s intentions “within the first minute” of meeting him.
High-level politicians often think that they are experts at reading and influencing other leaders. They quickly come to believe that they are the world’s leading authority on any counterpart they meet in person. For example, President George W. Bush was so enamored with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that senior advisers launched a concerted campaign to curb his enthusiasm.
“You’re my man,” Bush would say to Maliki. When advisers told the president he was undercutting U.S. efforts to pressure Maliki, Bush responded with incredulity: “Are you saying I’m the problem?”
If Trump follows this pattern I’ve found when studying the personal side of foreign policy, he may believe that he now has special insight into Kim. And that means the dynamics of U.S. policymaking toward North Korea have changed. Having met Kim, the president will be even less likely to listen to experts in the intelligence and diplomatic communities.
From first impressions to agreement
Hours after Trump and Kim first met, the two leaders emerged from their talks to sign a joint document. The U.S. is prepared to guarantee the regime’s security, and North Korea is willing to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” according to the statement. Trump called it a “very comprehensive agreement.”
Critics are charging that the letter was closer to North Korea’s preferences than the “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible de-nuclearization” sought by the United States.
Perhaps the document is underwhelming, repeating North Korean promises of the past without any clear road map to making them reality. But something significant changed in Singapore: President Trump has met Kim face to face.
On the eve of the summit, details emerged of a profile of Kim’s personality, provided to the president by allied intelligence agencies.
This is standard practice prior to meetings with foreign leaders. But once the leaders have met in person, intelligence analysis takes second place to first-hand impressions.
In the future, expert counsel on Kim’s intentions may clash with Trump’s positive perception of the North Korean leader. In the post-summit press conference Trump called Kim “very talented.” He told journalist Greta van Susteren that Kim has “a great personality, he’s a funny guy, he’s very smart. He loves his people.”
From now on, analyses from the diplomatic and intelligence communities that fit Trump’s view of Kim will be favored, those at odds with his view may be dismissed.
This dynamic is common in policymaking, and there are reasons to think it could be extremely consequential in this case.
Relying on ‘touch, feel’
First, Trump’s tendency to trust his instincts is already pronounced. Asked by a reporter before the summit how he would know if Kim was serious about de-nuclearization, Trump said he would rely upon “my touch, my feel. It’s what I do.”
Second, the intricate series of steps toward disarmament of a nuclear arsenal require expert verification. Ostensibly cooperative actions – like destroying nuclear test tunnels – might turn out to be empty gestures once analysts have pored over the surveillance footage. The North Korean regime has a history of making public agreements, then advancing their nuclear arsenal in secret.
This summit process began with a snap decision by Trump to accept an offer to meet with Kim. The most significant result may be Trump’s new confidence that he uniquely understands the North Korean leader. This will further reinforce the defining dynamic of Trump’s presidency so far: Ignore the experts, trust your gut.
At first glance, it is easy to call the meeting between US president, Donald Trump, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, “historic” and “unprecedented”. It was the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries, which are still technically in a state of war.
You could also call it a success – preparations and schedules were respected, the media had ample opportunity to take shots of the two men shaking hands in front of the colourful display of 12 intermingled American and North Korean flags – and they were also privy to comments by the two leaders, including Kim in one of his very rare appearances in front of the foreign press.
The meeting was also a success from a security and optics points of view: smiles were exchanged, in-depth discussions took place between cabinet members, nobody went off script and there were no security breaches, thanks to ironclad preparations by their Singaporean hosts.
Now that both leaders are on their way back to their own countries, we are left with many photos of the bromance du jour, as well as a signed statement – and a plethora of questions. What should we take away from this historic moment? Here are three key points:
1. Ultimately it was North Korea’s day
Kim has managed to build upon the work of his father and grandfather and secured the highest form of recognition that there is – a bilateral meeting with the president of the most powerful country on the planet.
And North Korea did not have to pay a cent for it: China furnished a plane, Singapore footed the US$15m-plus bill for the summit, and the media distributed images of the North Korean leader parlaying on equal terms with the US president to the entire world. It’s a resounding success for Kim – and one that is likely to be exploited back home for political purpose.
2. What is written in the agreement
The joint document signed by both parties shows the craftiness and hardline approach the DPRK has taken to the summit. Though the agreement commits both parties to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – removing all nuclear weapons from the region, including potential American weapons – the DPRK has only reiterated, in writing, its commitment to “work towards” this aim.
This is certainly not the pledge for the unilateral dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme that the US has always pushed for.
3. What is not written in the agreement
The agreement shows a clear miss from the United States, as there are no mentions of CVID (“complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”) of North Korean nuclear capabilities – something that was talked about a great deal in the run up to the meeting.
Given that Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton, have signalled that they would accept nothing short of CVID, this is a giant omission. Essentially, this should be read as a refusal from the DPRK to state that they would denuclearise unilaterally.
4. Putting words into action
The agreement provides very vague concepts for a new US-DPRK relationship – one that will without a doubt also change the nature of balance and geopolitics in East Asia and relationships with other regional actors such as South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
The first concrete action was for the American president to announce he intends to call a halt to the annual war game exercises organised between the US and South Korea (the most recent exercises nearly derailed the inter-Korea summit a few weeks ago). This is an important step toward confidence building for both sides of the summit and one that should be praised.
But it is important to note that Trump’s rationale was to scrap the war games, not because they offend and worry the DPRK – but, as he himself stated to the media, because they cost a lot of money. And money – especially the way Trump thinks the rest of the world takes advantage of the US – was a theme the US president returned to repeatedly in the post-summit press conference.
Trump also talked about real estate development opportunities in the DPRK. In essence, Trump’s money-focused transactional nature took only a few hours to surface after his handshake with Kim. But peace has a cost and, given the current US narrative that seeks to avoid foreign entanglement and is fed up with spending money on international commitments, it will require the United States to manage its shaky alliances if this is to be a realistic prospect.
And as reactions are starting to pour in from world leaders, it is important to remember that the summit has given the DPRK legitimacy on the world stage, while there was little talk of how this legitimacy was acquired: essentially by developing nuclear weapons.
Kim is a dictator who has purged a number of rivals while starving and oppressing his own population. Ultimately, Trump has just willingly sat down with a villain and not gained much in the way of concessions in return.
In my preview of the historic US-DPRK summit in Singapore, I asked where Trump and Kim might find lowest common denominator points of agreement to potentially unlock a confidence-building pathway.
That this summit has even taken place at all could be seen as an achievement, given where US-DPRK relations were in 2017. We should therefore be unsurprised that despite Trump’s hype in the lead-up to the event, the common denominators of agreement amounted to promises of a new relationship and little else of substance.
However, it is not so much what is in the joint statement as much as what has been left out that is the big story.
To tease this out, let’s consider the four specific points of agreement articulated in the joint statement released by US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un at the conclusion of today’s summit.
In the first article of the agreement, the two parties committed to establishing a “new US-DPRK relations.” What might a new relationship between the two countries look like?
The leader-to-leader summit between the two countries was unprecedented and potentially could represent a tentative first step on the road to rapprochement. Symbolism is the obvious place to begin, given the low base the relationship between these two countries is starting from.
If we jump to article four, both parties have committed to the process of recovering the remains of UN forces prisoners of war and soldiers missing-in-action from the Korean War, along with the immediate repatriation of the remains of those already identified.
In a similar way to the family reunion program articulated in the inter-Korean Panmunjom Agreement, the repatriation of POW/MIA remains is a relatively easy confidence-building measure on which to base a longer-term pathway of more substantive measures. It is also of great importance as a mark of respect to the families of those military personnel who can find closure with the return of their deceased loved ones.
The second article refers to joint efforts “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” As I’ve argued previously, a settlement to formally conclude the Korean War could be potential common interest around which to develop an engagement pathway.
Prior to the summit, Trump hinted that the “signing of a document” to close hostilities was a possibility. The closest the joint statement comes to this is a passage in the second paragraph, which reads:
President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK.
It is not immediately clear from the text what these security guarantees might be, but it certainly falls short of any kind of non-aggression pact or peace treaty. Such an outcome was always unlikely at this summit and would be the product of a longer negotiating process should it come to pass.
The end of ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation’?
The joint statement gets interesting in article three, in which “the DPRK commits to work toward the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
The wording around “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” reflects the North Korean interpretation of the concept, which has been well-documented in the lead-up to the summit.
Tellingly, there is no mention of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID) in the statement text, which is a clear departure from long-standing US policy.
There are a couple of ways this could be interpreted. On the one hand, it is possible that Trump lived up to the pre-summit fears of some domestic critics and gave away too much for too little in the negotiation. From this perspective, the master negotiator Trump was played by Kim into signing off on the North Korean position, through which Kim gets international legitimacy and domestic prestige from attending the summit without having to make any concessions.
On the other hand, Trump’s omission of CVID could be a calibrated strategy accompanied by a clearly articulated and wide-ranging engagement strategy, scaffolded around a formal peace treaty. If so, it could prove to be the circuit-breaker that opens the pathway toward the aforementioned “new US-DPRK relations” and the collective management of North Korea as a nuclear power.
Either way, this will become clearer if and when follow-up negotiations take place. Either way, there are factions of the international political spectrum who will be unhappy with the outcome.
It is significant that article three pays homage to the Panmunjom Agreement, which may be the key to understanding how the US-South Korea-DPRK engagement triangle may unfold.
The Panmunjom Agreement, for all its ambiguity, does have an articulation of economic and security confidence-building measures, based on a shared vision for a permanent Korean Peninsula peace regime.
If we assume a calibrated strategy in deferring to the Panmunjom Agreement, the US-DPRK joint statement may indicate the bulk of the heavy lifting with regard to confidence-building measures will be handled as an inter-Korean affair, with Trump’s apparent non-aggression promise providing space for engagement initiatives to evolve.
Where to now?
My take-home message from the omission of CVID from the joint statement is confirmation that North Korea under Kim Jong-un is never going to willingly denuclearise.
In “working toward complete denuclearisation,” North Korea may agree to a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing moratorium, decommission obsolete nuclear facilities, or even promise to freeze production of new nuclear weapons, without ever having to compromise its nuclear weapons capability.
We should not be surprised if one or both parties back-pedals from the joint statement at some stage. Seasoned North Korea watchers will be expecting North Korea to backtrack from the joint statement to extract concessions, or add new conditions to their continued commitment to the “new US-DPRK relations,” as we have seen several times previously.
We are also likely to see Trump sustain considerable political heat domestically for his perceived capitulation on CVID and for omitting human rights from the discussion, as well as from the Japanese government for selling out their security interests.
This pressure may be sufficient to prompt a recalibration of the US interpretation of the joint statement. Backpedalling from either side will change the position of the other and blow the whole engagement process out of the water.
The final paragraph of the joint statement commits US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with an as yet unidentified high level North Korean official. It will be at these meetings and beyond where the “new US-DPRK relations” will start to take shape.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un will meet on Tuesday for their highly anticipated summit in Singapore. For the summit to be productive, the negotiations need to converge on a lowest-common-denominator shared interest that both parties can agree on.
We saw this in the inter-Korean summit, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un settled on easy-win confidence-building measures as the starting point for more substantive negotiations.
Given the extreme and long-standing trust deficit between the US and DPRK, it is not clear where Trump and Kim might find this lowest common denominator to unlock a confidence-building pathway. Because of that, this summit is shaping as compelling viewing as a spectacle, and perplexing in its ambiguous purpose.
What do they have to offer each other?
North Korea is not committed to denuclearisation as the concept has been understood by the Trump administration. The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea implies the full simultaneous nuclear weapons relinquishment by all nuclear powers, including the United States.
The problem with Trump’s insistence on CVID is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point for a discussion with North Korea on those terms. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program, because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway, and domestic political legitimacy.
The only real concession of value that Washington has to offer Kim is a formal treaty to conclude the Korean War. Indeed, Trump has hinted that the “signing of a document” to close hostilities is a possibility (though he stopped short of offering a formal peace treaty).
What does North Korea have to offer the United States, short of denuclearisation? We have seen gestures of goodwill in the lead-up to the summit. North Korea’s recently demolished tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site are a gesture of goodwill to Washington, offering up a now-obsolete facility.
This echoes a similar concession by Pyongyang in 2008, when it demolished the cooling tower of the obsolete reactor at Yongbyon. Negotiations may settle on a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to other smaller security-related confidence-building measures.
The North released three American citizens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a recent visit to Pyongyang. The Americans had been detained in the DPRK on accusations of espionage.
Both parties have strengths and weaknesses in their bargaining positions. North Korea has (or is close enough to) a deployable nuclear weapons capability. Kim appears enthusiastic to talk now with the Americans, because in nuclear weapons his government has the strategic leverage it needs. North Korea wants to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States, but on Pyongyang’s terms.
The explicit inclusion of references to transportation infrastructure linkages with South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration from April’s inter-Korean summit illustrates this point.
Similarly, there are limitations on American action that constrain its negotiating options – most notably, the strategic vulnerability of Seoul to North Korean bombardment.
The absence of a substantive relationship between the US and North Korea also limits Washington’s economic and diplomatic leverage. Rightly or wrongly, the US has dealt itself out of direct influence over North Korea through its various policies of strategic isolation and maximum pressure. It is ironic that US officials have consistently urged China to do more to pressure North Korea and uphold the integrity of the sanctions regime, when it has been economic interactions between the DPRK and China that have had the most demonstrable impact on politics in Pyongyang.
However, the clear power disparity between the US and DPRK is often overlooked. As the more powerful party with overwhelming nuclear superiority and clear capacity to deter any North Korean nuclear threat, the US does have capacity to reset the terms of the relationship by reducing the heat in negotiations.
Trump can do this by changing the focus of the negotiations. If it insists on CVID to the bitter end, the Trump administration will blow an opportunity to meaningfully change the strategic goalposts on the Korean Peninsula by focusing on the wrong prize.
Who else is playing a role?
With such ambiguity over potential outcomes from the summit, other regional players are lobbying hard around the edges to represent their interests.
South Korea’s diplomatic efforts in 2018 have been geared to guiding the US into a more conciliatory position with North Korea. This would make it politically safer for Trump to negotiate for an agreement with Pyongyang, knowing there are influential American officials in Trump’s ear counselling for war.
Moon Jae-in has been busy maintaining the diplomatic momentum generated by the inter-Korean summit, from his tactical ego-stroking comments about Trump deserving the Nobel Peace Prize to visiting Washington to lobby the president directly.
Moon has even flagged that he may travel to Singapore for the summit, knowing South Korea is best positioned to facilitate confidence-building with the DPRK.
Conversely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been engaging in shuttle diplomacy, urging Trump to follow a tougher line. North Korea’s WMD and missile threat to Japan, and resolution of the abductee issue, are core interests of the Abe administration.
Indeed, an adversarial North Korea better suits Abe’s domestic agenda for Japanese strategic “normalisation”, which would be undercut by rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.
It is also interesting to see that former NBA star Dennis Rodman may be an attendee at the summit. While Rodman has been lampooned in some quarters for his sports diplomacy and relationship with Kim Jong-un, he nonetheless has a level of access to and a unique rapport with the North Korean leader that is largely unmatched by anyone else within the American foreign policy establishment.
Also significant is the non-invitation of US National Security Advisor John Bolton. His recent comments comparing North Korea to Libya appear to be a deliberate attempt to undercut the State Department’s groundwork with Pyongyang over the past few months.
American hawks such as Bolton view any kind of engagement with North Korea as a “loss” or “appeasement” — one of the most juvenile and misapplied terms in the international relations lexicon.
They are well aware of the difficulty of getting any negotiated deal ratified in a Republican-majority Congress (recalling the fate of the Agreed Framework). The irony is a deal is more likely to stick in the US if it is owned by a Republican president.
What could this summit achieve?
My view is that North Korea can be deterred as a nuclear power, and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War represents the best pathway to managing regional security and ensuring the safety of the people who live in the region.
It is under the umbrella of a formalised peace regime that human rights concerns within North Korea are more likely to be addressed, coupled with continued pressure from international human rights advocates.
Summits are symbols that act as markers in a much broader process of relationship-building. They are based on confidence-building measures and clear, achievable implementation steps. Through such a process, the parties could gradually evolve the level of trust necessary to progress to subsequent steps on the negotiation pathway.
It is unclear in the build-up to this unprecedented summit if the participants will be able to hack away the thicket of decades of mistrust and hostility to identify common interests.
We will find out on Tuesday if Trump and Kim can find that lowest common denominator on which to build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Ten days ago, the international community was facing an existential crisis: US President Donald Trump may be a credible nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump’s unconventional tactics appeared to have led to a legitimate thawing of relations with the reclusive and dogmatic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The planned summit on June 12 in Singapore was considered a potential path to ending the long-running Korean conflict, which time and again has threatened to make nuclear war a reality.
Now, less than a fortnight later, the talks are off – for now – although a second summit on Saturday between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could pave the way for their reinstatement. The reality is that the way forward for the Korean dispute could not be murkier, although Trump is now suggesting June 12 will go ahead as planned.
So the questions remain: what happened? and where to from here?
The derailing process – White House musical chairs
Trump instinctively likes strong-man leaders in the style of Kim. He likes to think he can talk to these sorts of leaders “man-to-man”, sorting complex issues out with business-style tactics. Until recently, these seemed to be working in North Korea, leading to the recent inter-Korean meeting at the Demilitarised Zone border, and the promise of the summit with the US.
In particular, bringing in John Bolton as the National Security Advisor and involving him in the Korean summit was a clear strategic error by the Trump team with far-reaching consequences. Bolton is not a new face for the North Koreans. They know him well and he has a long and chequered history with the regime, which it is in no hurry to forget.
When George W Bush took office in 2001, Bolton was a key figure in scuttling the Bill Clinton-led deal that was in the works in late 2000/early 2001. Not long after this, North Korea appeared in Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” speech, and the stage was set for confrontation. Bolton’s involvement has not been an effective way to build rapport prior to the June 12 summit.
Pence, Bolton and the Kim regime
About a week ago, murmurs emerging from North Korean circles indicated Kim Jong-Un was shying away from committing fully to the June 12 summit. The return of Bolton, and the interjection of Vice President Mike Pence to the issue, had led to a return to the aggressive rhetoric we had come to expect from the North Korean regime.
The likely key turning point for Kim Jong-un was the comparison with the Libyan example from 2003 by both Bolton and Pence. In 2003, then-leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to give up all weapons in return for the lifting of sanctions.
While the west may remember this as a successful denuclearisation process, undoubtedly what Kim Jong-Un clearly recalls is the deposing and killing of Gaddafi less than a decade later in 2011. Many dictatorial leaders, including Kim Jong-Un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have reiterated that the image of Gaddafi being dragged behind a car through Tripoli haunts them and influences their decisions to this day.
For Kim Jong-un, the experience of Libya has always been a warning sign to never give up your nuclear arsenal. Gaddafi was deposed and killed just as Kim Jong-un assumed the leadership following his father’s death in late 2010. The experience of Libya is a key lesson in why North Korea pursued nuclear weapons so aggressively under his watch. To bring this up in the lead-up to the summit as an example that may be replicated would have immediately put the North Korean leadership on high alert.
Trump’s response – From engagement to ego protection
One reason Trump likely to have pulled the pin is to save face. His Art of the Deal co-author Tony Schwartz commented:
Trump has a morbid fear of being humiliated and shamed. This is showing who’s the biggest and the strongest, so he is exquisitely sensitive to the possibility that he would end up looking weak and small. There is nothing more unacceptable to Trump than that.
In Trump’s mind, it is better to jump first than have the Koreans pull the rug out from underneath him.
The potential diplomatic damage from the public abandonment of the summit is immense. In particular, the sudden announcement of the US’s withdrawal from the summit blindsided key allies, especially South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon has staked his reputation on solving the Korean conflict, and members of his administration have been on record in the days leading up to the withdrawal stating that the chance of the summit happening was 99.9%.
We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.
China and North Korea – back on the same page?
The plans for the summit, and the associated thawing of relations with South Korea, also contributed to the warming of the recently frosty relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. Kim’s first overseas trip since taking on the leadership was a recent visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping.
Historically an ally of North Korea, China has been a key factor in bringing Kim Jong-un to the table by actually committing to enforce the international sanctions on North Korea. The recent meetings between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping may mean China becomes less willing to continue with actively enforcing the sanctions.
Trump suspected China was already weakening its stance. Tweeting out shortly before news of the cancellation of the June summit broke, Trump accused China of weakening the measures that brought North Korea to the table.
Trump publicly urged the Chinese regime to be “strong & tight” on sanctions. What China decides to do next will in large part determine whether there remains any credible chance of peace on the Korean peninsula.
There seem to be constant leaks trickling out of a White House seemingly incapable of maintaining confidentiality. In essence, the US policy on North Korea under Trump remains a moving target. In a statement to reporters on Friday, Trump said “everybody plays games”, then soon after tweeted “very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea”.
So there now appears hope that the Singapore summit may still take place. On Saturday, Moon and Kim met for the second time at the border truce village in the DMZ.
Moon presumably used the meeting to get the plans for the summit back on track. The unknown element is the price of the inconsistency in Trump’s approach. In the case of North Korea, playing “games” while risking genuine efforts to seek denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula may come at an exceedingly high cost.
In the wake of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting yesterday with US President Donald Trump, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable role he’s played in facilitating the opening for diplomacy that’s emerged this year between the US and North Korea.
It was a difficult environment for Moon to step into as the new leader of South Korea eager to pursue an agenda of rapprochement with the North. Yet Moon’s government has been able to craft a distinctive approach to engagement with an unpredictable leader like Kim and an American president who is equally erratic and deeply uncertain about his approach to North Korea policy.
Moon has made great strides in recent months, though we will have to hold judgement on the success of his approach until after Korea’s season of summits plays out.
A history of progressive politics
Moon Jae-in came from humble beginnings, born to a poor family who had fled the North during the Korean War. As a student at Kyung Hee University during the 1970s, he was involved in the emerging pro-democracy movement against the dictator Park Chung-hee. He also took part in Operation Paul Bunyan during his compulsory military service, the retaliatory operation to the infamous 1976 killings of two US Army officers by North Korean soldiers (known as the “axe murder incident”).
Moon eventually graduated from university and passed the bar exam in 1982, but was unable to advance in the judiciary due to his pro-democracy activist history. Through the 1980s, Moon partnered in a law firm with future South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, specialising in human rights cases.
Moon’s relationship with Roh would later lead him into politics. He was an official in Roh’s presidential administration, during which time he oversaw the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea in 2004 and was involved in organising the 2007 inter-Korean summit.
Moon made the jump from government official to elected representative in 2012, when he was elected to the South Korean National Assembly. He later launched an unsuccessful campaign for president against Park Geun-hye.
He went on to comfortably win the May 2017 presidential election, pledging to revive the engagement strategies of the Sunshine Policy era and seek better ties with the North.
A pivotal actor
Moon has advocated for a firm but patient strategy in engaging with North Korea. In his inaugural address as president, he expressed a willingness to:
go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula. If necessary, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and under the right circumstances go to Pyongyang, as well. I will do whatever I can to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
His enthusiasm for a more activist approach toward the North contrasted with the freeze in inter-Korean relations that had developed during the more conservative reciprocity-based strategy favoured by presidents Park and Lee Myung-bak.
The strategy is aimed at buttressing regional security through economic and infrastructure linkages, or “nine bridges” between South Korea and Russia in the form of gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the co-development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of the New Northern Policy emerged in Article 1.6 of the Panmunjom Declaration from the recent inter-Korean summit, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ between North and South Korea. These kinds of economic incentives may be highly attractive for North Korea as it pursues its Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development).
Despite taking a firm line on sanctions against North Korea following Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, the Moon administration capitalised on the auspiciously timed Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to open a new line of communication with the North Koreans. This bought much-needed time for diplomacy as tensions between the US and North Korea were reaching a boiling point.
By accident or design, the Moon-Kim summit last month and proposed Trump-Kim summit scheduled for next month have opened a window of opportunity to move away from the status quo toward a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
While Trump and Kim will inevitably grab all the headlines, Moon has been a pivotal actor in this drama. His activism in engaging the North has helped to make it politically safer for the Trump administration to negotiate with Kim, a prospect that was unthinkable only months ago.
This week’s high-stakes summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un heralds a new period of negotiations in which regional states attempt to manage a northeast Asian security environment that includes a nuclear North Korea.
Several analysts, myself included, have long postulated that a primary objective of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development was to enter a new phase of security negotiations with the United States from a position of increased strength.
Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in a fresh round of summits with Seoul and Washington is a good indicator that it has completed the technical development of its nuclear weapons capability and has a nuclear deterrent ready (or nearly ready) to deploy.
Official statements coming out of Pyongyang indicate as much. In a statement on April 20, reported by Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong-un said North Korea will “discontinue nuclear testing and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire” as “technology for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets has been reliably realised”.
The completion of its nuclear development gambit has implications for the timing and direction of North Korea’s summits with South Korea and the United States.
Concessions and confidence-building
With denuclearisation in the rear-view mirror, could we see a pathway toward a treaty to formally end the Korean War? That would seem to be an objective for North Korea, but remains a long way off. It would require a long period of mutual confidence-building to establish the trust necessary to make a treaty possible.
So, what of substance is North Korea willing to concede? Kim’s statement on a nuclear and missile test moratorium, and closing the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, is the most prominent concession made yet.
However, we should be clear that this does not mean North Korea has any interest in denuclearising. Punggye-ri is a superfluous asset if testing is no longer required for technical analysis. The site is also reported to be no longer fit for purpose, having been geologically destabilised by six nuclear tests.
The North will continue to produce fissile material. The oft-cited US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment released last year estimates a stockpile of fissile material sufficient for 40-60 nuclear warheads, increasing at a rate of about 12 warheads per year at current estimated rates of production.
North Korea also has a history of circumventing commitments agreed to in the past. This includes its development of a highly enriched uranium program in contravention of the Agreed Framework in the late 1990s, its violation in July 2006 of the 1999 missile testing moratorium, and its 2008 abandonment of the Six-Party Talks.
Information is the key to international co-operation, reducing the uncertainty that countries have about each other’s actions. It remains unclear what North Korea can offer to assuage American scepticism that it will honour a deal.
On the other side of the table, what is the negotiating goal for the United States? Some analysts worry Trump may be entering negotiations with unrealistic expectations of a denuclearisation deal. There is a fear he will offer too much to North Korea, or that negotiations will fall in a heap when the reality of the demise of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” sinks in.
A hard cap on North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability could be the new negotiating point. Now that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, constraining the Nort’s nuclear weapons capability is shaping as the most practical goal for the US in terms of its commitments to protecting its regional allies and maintaining the integrity of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
In a worst-case scenario, the Trump administration could use the summit as a straw man to mobilise a case for attacking North Korea. The appointment of the ultra-hawkish John Bolton as national security adviser would seem to signal a tough line, given his long record of advocacy for the use of force against the North.
For reasons I outlined at length last year (here, here and here), war on the Korean Peninsula remains a terrible option.
The Moon-Kim summit
Moon Jae-in’s meeting this week with Kim Jong-un is arguably the more important of the two summits. This meeting could help shape the negotiating agenda for the US-North Korea summit later this year.
A successful summit between Moon and Kim will need to produce some substantive points of agreement on key security issues. These include negotiation of a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to smaller confidence-building measures. The summit will allow Moon to “road test” a negotiating agenda, as David Kang has argued, for the later Trump-Kim meeting.
However, a nascent South-North détente emerging from the summit could constrain the US bargaining position. It will be much harder for Trump to play a game of high-stakes brinkmanship with the Kim regime if Kim and Moon have agreed to a clear pathway of confidence-building measures.
The South Korean government will be keen to railroad the Trump administration into an engagement track with Pyongyang. Some within the South Korean establishment see Trump as a loose cannon and his administration as an unreliable variable in Korean Peninsula security.
Trump’s lack of consultation with South Korea during his escalations of 2017, the continued absence of a permanent US ambassador to South Korea, and the lack of a coherent North Korea policy in Washington are seen as evidence that Seoul needs to be more activist in pursuing its own agenda.
Inter-Korean co-operation on the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year was successful in dialling down tensions on the Peninsula and closing the window, at least for the time being, on American military action against the North.
The end of denuclearisation politics has opened new possibilities for the direction of the Korean Peninsula. The tensions of 2017 showed us a glimpse of disaster. The summits of 2018 may represent a doorway to a new arrangement for collective management of Korean Peninsula security.