MACK WILLIAMS. North Korea: the clock is ticking – but just?

Nov 6, 2019

There have been a few developments since the abortive Hanoi Summit but overall little of substance has changed.

With President Trump increasingly preoccupied with House moves on Impeachment, Ukrainegate and the mess in Syria time is running out to rescue something positive from the Korean miasma. Though, given his track record, it would be well within his persona to try to organise something on North Korea as a political stunt to divert attention away from the US domestic political scene – without any prior substantive progress on the core issues.

In his intensifying 2020 campaign, he has boasted that his personal negotiating skills with his ‘close friend’ Kim Jong-un will prevail where others have not. But Kim also has drawn the end of 2019 as a line in the sand for reaching an agreement to a stage by stage denuclearisation of North Korea (whatever that might come to mean in precise detail!) in return for reductions of sanctions. Without such an agreement by then, Kim has implied that the DPRK will re-evaluate its nuclear program.

More information about the failed Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim has seeped out in its aftermath. On the US side there now is little doubt that the hawkish late intervention by the former National Security Adviser John Bolton upset what the North Korean side had considered as (albeit mildly) encouraging preparatory discussions for Hanoi with their US counterparts led by Stephen Biegun. Biegun had spoken in public at Stanford around that time (presumably with White House clearance) in terms which would have reinforced that view – as separately had Secretary of State Pompeo. Kim’s anger at the line Bolton persuaded Trump to follow led him to change his own negotiating team – by firing some and demoting or banishing others- presumably for having misled him about the likely Trump approach to the Summit. Kim’s irritation with Bolton resulted in Trump sending Bolton off to Mongolia at the time of the informal meeting between the two leaders in the DMZ in June.

Despite the reality TV hoopla of the DMZ meeting, Kim dragged his feet about the heralded reopening of officials talks.  Eventually, in early October officials met in Sweden only to break up after a few hours before any substantial discussion with the DPRK walking away claiming that the US had nothing new to offer. The US side refuted those claims and said that both sides had agreed to meet again in a few weeks’ time. The DPRK side nominated December and characterised the talks as “sickening”. There has been some speculation that the DPRK side had hoped for some substantive change in the US position following Bolton’s departure from the White House and that had been why they had agreed suddenly to the reopening of talks.  The DPRK team leader made the time lines abundantly clear: “The fate of the future (DPRK)-US dialogue depends on the US attitude, and the end of the year is the deadline”

What impact Bolton’s absence will have on the management of the negotiating process with the DPRK remains to be seen. His hand was not always obvious except when he intervened personally in Hanoi but his track record of dealing with the DPRK over many years was always very robust. His demolition job in Hanoi will probably take some time to erase. His own book soon to be released will be bound to stir things up – and probably not in ways helpful for Trump!

Trump’s nomination of Biegun (a former senior Ford executive) as Deputy Secretary of State injects another new element. Washington scuttlebutt is that Trump wants Biegun to replace Pompeo who apparently is keen to stand for a Senate seat in 2020. Apart from speculation about Biegun’s replacement in the DPRK negotiating team this could also mean, given the dysfunctional scene in the White House, State may become more prominent in future dealings with the DPRK.

Meanwhile, the North has continued an active missile testing program which may have been permitted under Security Council sanctions but widely regarded as not in the spirit of the stalled negotiation process. It has countered that continued US/ROK military exercises and the delivery of the first JF35’s to the ROK likewise ran contrary to that spirit. Trump has played down the importance of the DPRK missile tests – as has the ROK government but there are concerns in the ROK and Japan that the US complacency about the tests is because the missiles involved are not ICBM’s which could reach the US mainland.

Perhaps ironically the personal commitment of both Trump and Kim to each other has appeared rock solid. There has been the occasional exchange of personal letters of endearment with both leaders remaining confident that they (and probably only “they”) can eventually broker a breakthrough deal. Both are quick to quarantine each other from any blame for the lack of progress. However, any hopes that their DMZ meeting might have sparked enough progress for a further Summit – and even a Kim visit to the US flagged by Trump – have come to nothing. Trump has his hands full in Washington with other issues at the moment but given the way he operates he could well be tempted to revisit the idea of a Kim visit as another diversionary domestic political move.

Throughout this period the North has toughened up its relations with the ROK once again. How much this reflects a view by Kim that President Moon no longer has the political standing with Trump, which may have been helpful earlier on in kick-starting the summitry process, remains to be seen. Or does it mean simply that Kim is confident that he can extract the better deal in one-on-one contacts with Trump? There have been a number of minor irritants in the intra-Korean relationship: from the DPRK pulling out of sporting competitions in the ROK to Kim’s decision to destroy all the ROK-funded buildings and infrastructure at the Mt Kumgang holiday resort in the DPRK where an estimated 2 million family reunions had taken place and refusing to have officials’ discussions about the issue.

Likewise, relations between Washington and Seoul have come under further pressure. Reportedly disparaging remarks about South Korea by Trump and the tough stand the US has continued to take on increasing the burden sharing by the ROK for US defence support have contributed much to this situation. Moon’s ambition of having the ROK assume more operational control of joint US/ROK forces (known as OPCON) during his presidency has added another point of contention. For some time, this has been something of a chestnut involving extensive and complex details to be agreed.  But given growing concerns in South Korea about the reliability of US alliance commitments and what many have seen as bullying by Trump, this strikes some strong nationalist emotions.  Though there are some in the ROK who fear that a substantive change in OPCON could hasten the process of withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.

China’s role in potentially resolving the North Korean problem continues to be accepted as vital by all the stakeholders – though sometimes complicated by other elements of their bilateral relations with China. The deployment of the US THAAD counter missile capability in the ROK persists as a major irritant in its relations with China which has continued its retaliatory actions- notably in severely reducing Chinese tourist numbers on which the ROK had come to rely heavily. In addition, the ROK’s current dispute with Japan is serious for both countries and has yet to be resolved.

Mack Williams was a former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea


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