MACK WILLIAMS. North Korea: second fiddle?

Not surprisingly North Korea was relegated by the US:China “tariff war” in the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires but some progress may have been made in preparing for the next phases of US:DPRK and ROK:DPRK dialogues. China also made clear the linkage between its trade disputes with the US and the extent of their cooperation in working on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

The preparations for the just concluded G20 summit in Buenos Aires understandably were dominated by media speculation about the outcome of the bilateral talks on the tariff war between the US and Chinese leaders. But for the major stakeholders, the talks presented a potentially crucial opportunity to progress the negotiations on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula : with Xi to get China to hold the line on strong sanctions against the DPRK and for Moon to get Trump’s cover ( if not blessing) for the now increasingly significant interKorean attempts to lower military tensions and increase cooperation between the two Koreas.

One clear lesson that both Koreas and China have learned from the Trump presidency is that his ‘predictable unpredictability’ dictates patience and elevation to Trump personally of key issues in dealing with the US. Their experience has been that reaching any compromise in lower level negotiations with the US often proves more difficult than with him in personal summits – especially like in Singapore when no advisers are present. That has been borne out by Kim Jong-un’s repeated hedging on any talks with Secretary of State Pompeo – reserving the big decisions to direct talks with Trump. Moon has had much the same in his efforts to step up the dialogue and actions with the North – again trying to get a green light from Trump to counter pressures unsurprisingly he has been under down the line in the US hierarchy – such as being bawled out by Pompeo about some of the agreements Moon has made with Kim allegedly without prior US clearance.

In the event, Trump cancelled his bilateral with Moon at the last minute – much to the consternation of the ROK. White House staff sought to explain the cancellation as part of dressing up the simultaneous cancellation of the “summit” with Putin– and Erdogan who was tacked on. Trump and Moon, however, had a 30 minute discussion on the sidelines. There has been no media reporting whether Moon had a bilateral with Xi.

Trump skipped a major media briefing immediately after his meeting with Xi , on the pretext that he wanted to avoid distracting media away from the death of former President Bush Sr. Naturally the 90 day “suspension” of the US:China tariff “war” dominated most media attention. In what seems to be the only official US comment on the Xi:Trump summit the White House Press secretary stated :

“It was also agreed that great progress had been made with respect to North Korea and that President Trump , together with President Xi, will strive , along with Chairman Kim Jong Un, to see a nuclear free Korean Peninsula. President Trump expressed his friendship and respect for Chairman Kim.”

Later on the aircraft Trump told reporters :

“North Korea, which we didn’t get into, we have agreed we will work very strongly on North Korea. I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un…People have been working on that one for 80 years, right?…. but he agreeing to work with me 100 per cent…”

Trump said that they were examining three options for a possible meeting with Kim as early as January or February next. He also said that he looks forward to having Kim visit the US in the future. Pompeo will visit Pyongyang later this month as part of the preparations.

Prior to the G20 some Chinese academics had claimed that Trump did not understand the direct linkage for China between the tariff war and North Korea – progress on one issue would allow progress on the other and the reverse. On Korea and in the light of reported Chinese loosening of the sanctions against the North, Trump was keen to get Xi’s agreement to hold a firm line on sanctions while he tried to progress his talks with Kim towards the denuclearisation of the peninsula. Kim had sent a high level delegation to Beijing just before the G20 to argue the case for a reduction in sanctions. The Chinese media so far has been limited to bland coverage of the meeting and Xi’s encouragement to Trump to hold another summit meeting with Kim early in the New Year.

As far as the public record, little progress seems to have been made in recent months in officials level talks between the US and the North. But there have been a  few glimmers of a a bit of give in both sides . Perhaps the most significant was the comment by Vice President Pence in Singapore in mid November that the US would not insist on a “complete accounting” of the DPRK’s nuclear related assets prior to a second Kim:Trump Summit. This important blink by the US evoked surprisingly little media comment but it followed an extremely detailed private assessment by a group of US scientists who made the last ( albeit rudimentary ) inspection of the key DPRK nuclear site some years ago.

The group  argued that the US still has the wrong denuclearisation negotiating strategy with the DPRK . In addition to the significant political hurdles for the DPRK in accepting  complete denuclearisation before sanctions can be dropped, the group sets out a compelling practical argument why providing a “complete” accounting would be an enormously complex and lengthy challenge for the DPRK. Briefly, this requires accounting of fissile material, weaponizing and delivery :

  • undertaking a precise audit of the DPRK’s fissile material would prove nearly impossible given the ways some of it has been utilised – as in the aborted  nuclear project in Syria, losses incurred in weaponizing the materials etc.
  • what the DPRK has done already at Yongbyon is a move in the right direction
  • what the DPRK has done already also with its ICBM assets has removed the US from any potential targeting – but not the ROK or Japan !

The group urges the US government to aim first for a bilateral overall agreement that sets out in some detail what denuclearisation of the peninsula ultimately should mean. And then argue mutually step by step on a path aimed at achieving this outcome. They recognise that this is quite different to the present strategy which they assess to be a dead end policy which will prove unachievable. They claim their proposal will still take time but persistence would see concrete reduction of military threat. In part it follows somewhat similar argument to Moon’s current policy.

What was achieved in the Moon:Trump sidelines talk – with no advisers present – is still unclear. A senior Blue House official commented that the time was very limited:

“ We are generally satisfied with the content (of the meeting)….they didn’t discuss every minute detail but instead focussed on the larger picture….the top-down approach is especially good. Unlike in the past , this method  resolves issues”.

The White House statement on the meeting  emphasised that then two had agreed “ on the importance of  maintaining vigorous enforcement of existing sanctions”. All of which suggests that Moon made little headway with any argument for reducing sanctions. Whether he received his green light on the actions he has been taking with Kim which may run counter to sanctions is less clear. He seems to have been allowed to continue with the joint rail project with the DPRK but on the reports that the UN is investigating some of the gifts exchanged between Kim and Moon and the source of Kim’s luxury Mercedes car there was no detail. Moon has also drawn apparent support from Trump for the proposed next Kim:Moon Summit. This may be helpful to him domestically as his polls continue to drop.

 Mack Williams, Former Australian Ambassador to the ROK.

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