North Korea has been squeezed out of the media headlines in the months since the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed to achieve a breakthrough in February. This has been a factor both of there not being much new to report and the seeming plethora of other crises – at home and abroad – which Trump has on his agenda.
Immediately after Hanoi both Trump and Kim returned home to evaluate the Summit and explore very tentatively the way ahead. While asserting that the door still remained open, both were careful not to rush into follow-up discussions. The critical issue remained how to plan a road map ahead that might bridge the two entrenched and fundamentally opposed approaches : on the US side no relaxation of sanctions without “complete denuclearisation” by the DPRK and on the DPRK side a commitment to step-by-step concessions from both sides towards an ultimate goal of denuclearisation. The DPRK maintained that they had already started down the road with some limited destruction of nuclear facilities which merited some sanctions relaxation which the US rejected outright.
Meanwhile both leaders had sought to present the best face of the Summit outcome to their domestic audiences. Trump already had his eye firmly on the 2020 election campaign which he had kicked off late last year. He recognised just how important a positive outcome in Korea would be to his core supporters and how damaging a failure could be to the wider electorate. But despite some hawkish voices around his administration, he still appeared confident that his claimed good personal relationship with Kim would eventually provide a basis for a deal with the DPRK.
For his part, Kim has been more constrained. Although being careful to avoid personal criticism of Trump, Kim has been forthright in his calling for Secretary of State Pompeo to be excluded from the bilateral discussions. His antipathy for National Security Advisor Bolton is longstanding. He has set the target of the end of this year to complete the negotiations. He has also sought to reinforce his support from China and Russia. China remains a (if not “the’) key player and has urged Kim to stay the course on negotiating denuclearisation with Trump while lending public support for some limited easing of the sanctions on the DPRK. There have also been some signs that China is allowing some very minimal reopening of trade with the DPRK.
Likewise, Kim also met President Putin near Vladivostok to bolster support from Russia. Putin skilfully chose his words very tightly in his media briefing afterwards. Kim did not speak to the media. Putin said that he also had urged Kim to stay fully committed to the denuclearisation negotiations with Trump while agreeing that some limited relaxation of sanctions was justified. On bilateral issues Putin was ambiguous about how many more North Korean workers would be repatriated to the DPRK from Russia (an important sanctions requirement). He also again expressed Russian interest in extending rail and gas lines through the DPRK to South Korea – a long cherished Russian objective to allow better access to the energy hungry ROK market.
During this time President Moon has been trying to chart a course in ROK relations with the DPRK which would allow the interKorean dialogue to proceed without running interference with Washington’s overall strategies. He has tried (with limited success) to stretch the sanctions regime to allow greater economic cooperation and further relaxation of military tensions with the DPRK. In so doing he has also seen his own domestic support base being eroded.
Several weeks ago the US Treasury recommended another raft of US sanctions on the DPRK which Trump announced he would not allow to proceed. Invoking again his purported personal relationship with Kim, Trump said that he did not think additional sanctions (which he characterised as “large”) were necessary at this time – but added that they may be later. It may be no coincidence that US Special Negotiator Biegun was visiting Beijing at that time for the first public post Hanoi negotiations with the Chinese. Trump’s reported comments sought to represent his disallowance as a “withdrawal” of sanctions ! Was he seeking to paint this as “relaxation” of sanctions?
More recently tension rose once again as North Korea ran several short-range missile tests. Technically the missiles were not “intercontinental” which would have been a direct repudiation of the North’s pledge to have “ended” such tests but they were enough to spark media speculation. Experts have explained that only one of the missiles tested was new – a version of a Russian Iskander short range missile which travelled at such a low altitude that it could pose threats to US Patriot defence systems in Japan and Korea. Again Trump has been quick to discount the importance of the tests. Reiterating his ‘very good relationship’ with Kim, he added I think that it is very important that you maintain that relationship at least as long as you can”! These missiles may have minor military significance because they cannot reach the US but the ROK and Japan can be expected to take a different view!
Throughout all of this , Biegun , now in Seoul, cancelled a media meeting and little has been revealed of his discussions in Beijing and Seoul. He is clearly on a very tight leash this time after his encouraging predictions of an outcome prior to Hanoi proved embarrassing.
In the current global environment, it is very difficult to divine where things stand currently in the situation of North Korean denuclearisation. As the reported agenda of Trump’s recent telephone conversation with Putin illustrated so well, he has just so many genuinely serious crises on his plate – both foreign and domestic – that even his reputed skills at compartmentalisation of deals must be challenged. Externally the tariff dispute with China surely must be top priority but he also has the rapidly expanding and complex situation with Iran, not to mention the challenges he has set himself with Venezuela, his personal intervention with the rebels in Libya and so on. It is not without relevance that China is involved in almost all of these issues – especially Iran and Venezuela from which China imports large quantities of oil.
But in a revealing CNN analysis today of the extraordinarily large amount of twitter comment Trump generated last weekend the overwhelming majority were about the Mueller enquiry and the Russian election intervention problem and other domestic concerns.
Mack Williams is a former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea