MACK WILLIAMS . North Korea : The tangled web becomes more so !

Jun 14, 2019

That the past few months have seen no real progress towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is not all that surprising given the swirling global environment demanding priority attention for President Trump and other key stakeholders. Post mortems of the failed Hanoi Summit have revealed some significant divisions within both sides. Trump persists in proclaiming his close personal relationship with Kim Jong-un will eventually produce a deal but many of his allies and advisers remain sceptical. In the past few weeks the China card has become a major issue not only for Trump but also for President Moon as the spin-off from the US:China tariff war and the associated Huawei controversy pose some daunting issues for Seoul.

Allegations in late May in the conservative ROK daily Chosun Ilbo that Kim had been so embarrassed and annoyed by Trump’s walk out of the Hanoi Summit that he had ordered the execution of some key members of the North Korean negotiating team and the rustication of others (including his sister on whom previously he had depended for advice) quickly proved to be inaccurate ( as often these sorts of stories have been in the past). But they provided the most public indication of how seriously Kim had felt deceived by his own advisers but also by Secretary of State Pompeo whom has been declared unwelcome in Pyongyang. Kim has been careful not to criticise Trump for the failure. Some on the team , including Kim’s sister, seem to have been exonerated ( at least partially) by public appearances on podiums with Kim but there are bound to be scars. All of which was given its own touch in the Kim way by the surprise elevation to a senior party position of the lead singer of a famous North Korean women’s band (widely rumoured to have been an old girlfriend of Kim) – also supposedly executed a few years ago! This has been coupled with scattered reports recently from the US side of Trump’s displeasure with his National Security Advisor Bolton. In an impromptu comment at a recent public rally Trump told a journalist that “(Bolton) has strong views on things. That’s OK. I actually temper John which is pretty amazing isnt’it?…I have other people who are a little more dovish than him and I ultimately make the decision”. Reportedly Trump also kept Bolton away from a dinner with Kim and told White House staff that Bolton would not help broker a deal because he viewed the Kim regime so negatively.

Given the surprisingly optimistic tone of remarks by the US lead negotiator Biegun on the eve of the Hanoi summit, subsequently backed by Secretary of State Pompeo, begged the question of how much they were in line with Trump’s own thinking . It now appears likely that the two negotiating teams had agreed at least on the beginning of a small compromise for the two leaders to declare in Hanoi. It would have agreed to open a step by step negotiation process against an overall commitment by Kim to an eventual complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsular. This probably would have accepted the limited disabling work undertaken by the North at its Yongbyon nuclear facility and the moratorium on intercontinental missiles as the first step which would earn some minor relaxation of sanctions. This likely would have been the basis on which Kim would have agreed to go through with the Hanoi Summit. Apparently, Kim was seriously embarrassed when his discussions with Trump in Hanoi were derailed by Bolton appearing after having been delayed in Washington (seemingly which also led to the postponement of a scheduled visit to Canberra at that time) because of commitments to the emerging crisis in Venezuela. Reportedly, Bolton set about stiffening Trump’s position from that agreed by the two negotiating teams by insisting on a complete denuclearisation before any relaxation of sanctions and introducing a ban on chemical and biological weapons (CBW). CBW had always been acknowledged (reportedly with the Chinese too) as another extremely sensitive issue which needed to  be sorted in due course with the North (which is assessed as having large stocks). But it was carefully avoided at this critical stage of discussions on denuclearisation.

Trump’s subsequent efforts to regain the momentum of the pre-Hanoi dialogue with the North have not made much headway. He sent Kim a “happy birthday “letter in April commemorating the birth of Kim Il-sung and expressing interest in future meetings. But the ’good cop:bad cop’ routine with Bolton has begun to wear thin. Before Trump visited Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Bolton expressed concern in Tokyo about the latest round of DPRK missile tests which he (and many US observers) argue contravened the UN Security Council sanctions regime imposed on the North and risked destabilising the regional security scene (by constituting direct threats to both the ROK and Japan).In his eagerness to please Kim, Trump quickly issued a correction asserting that the tests were of no real import and that he retained his trust in Kim doing the right thing. Trump tweeted : “ He (Kim) also knows that I am with him and does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!” Not surprisingly these words did little to assuage either Seoul or Tokyo whose countries, unlike the US, lay well within the range of the missiles tested – and especially the one likened to the Russian Iskander which experts consider would be able to avoid existing missile defence systems in both countries.

There was also controversy over an abrupt statement by Trump about new US financial sanctions on the North. Bloomberg News reported that when a senior White House aide warned Bolton that Trump had not been advised of the new sanctions Bolton had claimed that he knew what Trump wanted and he would handle it. But Trump is reported to have reacted angrily to these new sanctions (and some others in the pipeline) when Bolton briefed him. Only after the intervention of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin did Trump eventually agree to this set but made it clear that he wanted no more, Press Secretary Sanders told the media that “he does not think these sanctions will be necessary”. More confusion emerged when Trump sought to explain that he had “withdrawn” the sanctions. Was this meant to be a sign of a quid pro quo for the actions the North has already taken? Yet another problem for the ROK emerged when it was discovered that a member of the ROK Embassy staff in Washington had leaked very tightly held details of an important Trump:Moon conversation to another officer in the Embassy. He has been summarily sacked though the damage done to Moon’s relations with Trump will not be helpful

Meanwhile tensions continued between Trump and ROK President Moon over the latter’s eagerness to push ahead with measures to reduce military tension and promote cooperation between the two Koreas which were viewed by the US as verging on sanctions busting. These included emergency food aid from the ROK to the North which Trump subsequently endorsed. The reopening of the Kaesong Industrial complex in the DPRK funded by the ROK where a joint Korean Liaison Office is to be located was another issue. But there has been a significant increase in other serious ROK:US bilateral issues :

· The larger ROK contribution to the combined US:ROK military costs

· US refusal to grant an extended waiver to the ROK for its substantial oil imports from Iran – already as a result of Trump’s earlier pressure on the ROK to reduce its substantial trade surplus with the US its imports of US oil and gas has quadrupled in the past two years. All of which has potential implications for Australian LNG exports to the ROK which have continued to rise ( 2nd behind Qatar). And for Australian imports of refined oil products of which roughly 20% comes from the ROK.

· Huawei involvement in the ROK – both in the Korean market but also Huawei’s transfer of sourcing parts etc from US to the ROK

· US pressure on the ROK to assist military pressure on the Chinese in the South China Sea

.The ROK is very conscious of the strong Chinese response to the decision to base a US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery in Korea a few years ago and must expect a similar hard line from China on Huawei and some of the other issues. About 25% of total ROK exports go to China – more than to the US, Japan and EU combined. The late decision by Chinese President Xi to cancel a scheduled visit to Seoul (and Pyongyang) before the G20 conference has reinforced those concerns. It has also cast some doubt on the extent to which China may be prepared to continue the critical role on North Korea it has played since Trump has assumed office. The US:China tariff war has spilled over into the ROK leaving, as one Korean commentator put it, it as being ‘diplomatically a shrimp among the whales’ !

Given the adulation expressed by many politicians (on both sides), senior officials and military displayed for the former PACOM Commander Harris when he was named by Trump as Ambassador to Australia, it has been informative to see him at work recently as Ambassador in the ROK. His position has always been an extremely complicated one in the complex US:ROK relationship – requiring very sensitive handling in balancing the latent South Korean edginess in the bilateral relationship with the hard lines of the dictum from Washington. The Chosun Ilbo reported starkly on 10 June that at a recent seminar in Seoul Harris had “demanded” that ‘Seoul take part in America’s efforts to thwart China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, join its boycott of Huawei, scrap barriers to foreign business in Korea and mend frayed ties with Japan’. Ever the Viceroy which he was bound to have tried to be in Canberra! President Moon’s staff were quick to challenge Harris’s demands but the fact remains that the ROK is now in an extremely difficult bind with both China and the US as well as with Japan.

With action now beginning to pick up speed in preparation for the 2020 elections this inevitably will start to focus Trump’s attention even more on the need to achieve a presentable outcome on North Korea sooner than later. Kim ( and no doubt Xi and Putin) has been well aware of this timeline and undoubtedly is why he is reported to have said that he was willing to continue with dialogue with the US until the end of this year but that would be a line in the sand.

PS. No matter all is still on track! Within hours yesterday of Bolton asserting to the Wall Street Journal that the North was not complying with the terms agreed at the Singapore Summit, Trump has reported that he had just received a “warm” letter from Kim and “ He (Kim) kept his word. There’s no nuclear testing no long range missiles going up…….. That’s very important” Trump recalled that earlier he had said that “ My people think it (short range missile tests) could have been a violation. I view it differently”. When asked about a third summit with Kim, Trump said that he hoped so but did not want to get ahead of things.

Mack Williams was a former Ambassador to the ROK


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