As the weeks tick over towards the US elections in November and doubts grow about President Trump’s prospects, the main stakeholders in the North Korean denuclearisation problem are having to reassess their options. All of which is making for a particularly complex poker game in which the stakes remain extremely high.
Not unexpectedly, the stopwatch is well and truly on for Trump to produce “ achievements “ which he can exploit to counter the devastating impact which Covid19 and its consequential damage to the US economy are wreaking on his opinion polling. One key objective which he set himself on taking up office was the resolution of the nuclear crisis with North Korea – negotiations on which have now been stalled since the abortive Hanoi Summit. After an initial frenzy of chest thumping, in which he labelled the DPRK leader – Kim Jong-un – “little rocket man”, Trump switched to developing a much-vaunted personal relationship with Kim Jong-un and their exchange of “love letters”. Since then he has professed the hope that this could provide the basis for a major breakthrough – something which a string of his predecessors had failed to do. But there has been no sign of any worthwhile change in the negotiations deadlock since Hanoi.
Trump continues to hold to the hard line on the need for the DPRK to denuclearise before the US will agree to any lifting of sanctions (both UN and US imposed) to coax the North back into talks about – relying on the economic and social damage caused by the sanctions to force the North to concede. normalisation of the bilateral relationship. The additional requirement for the destruction of weapons of mass destruction which he added in the Hanoi Summit – on the urging of former National Security Adviser Bolton (amply described in his recent “tell all” book) – remains.
Bolton also detailed Trump’s irritation with the leader of his senior officials team (Biegun) during preparations for the Hanoi Summit for agreeing to work on a stage-by-stage negotiations process with his opposite DPRK number. Trump’s failure to countenance the phased process proved to be the game changer in Hanoi which led to its sudden collapse. Kim Jong-un was so angered by it all that he had the leader of his officials’ team executed and a number of others in the team banished or demoted – including his stalwart sister Kim Yo-jong who went off the radar for a few months. Intriguingly, Biegun has since been promoted to Deputy Secretary of State and retained as the leader of the US officials team – in which capacity he has just visited Seoul for discussions with the ROK but denied a meeting by the DPRK. At least in public he has held closely to the Trump hard line with media.
The continuing failure of sanctions by the Security Council (and additionally by the US) force the DPRK to denuclearise or even resume negotiations has been demonstrable. Doubtless they have caused considerable damage to the DPRK economy and caused suffering to the non-elites in the North but the leadership has been able to find innovative ways of circumventing many of them . There have been some recent reports of serious food shortages in the DPRK – accompanied by leadership exhortations to conserve food supplies- and also the first signs of public recognition of problems with Covid19 but this does not yet amount to enough pressure on Kim Jong-un to make concessions at the negotiating table or pose a threat to the North’s continuing development of its defences.
In March the UN ‘Panel of Experts on the DPRK on the implementation of Security Council resolutions on the North’ detailed 250 alleged or proven cases of sanctions violations in 2019/20. This timely reminder of the leakiness of these sanctions identified 62 countries (6 more than the previous year) as being involved. Australia was not in this list. China alone had over 60 allegations followed by Hong Kong 20 and it included the US and the ROK. Only 3 countries were listed as having taken action to prevent violations : the ROK, Vietnam and Austria.
The report highlighted the DPRK’s continued success in accessing the international financial system, increasing abuse of cyberspace, and large scale breaking of maritime sanctions. In the past year China and Russia have both pushed the US hard to loosen the sanctions arguing that these alone would not be enough to force the DPRK into denuclearisation. Both have been rumoured to have stepped up their own trade with the DPRK. Earlier this year it was reported that Russia had agreed to sell the DPRK the equivalent of over 5 years of their total wheat flour needs.
Kim seems to have decided on a policy of calibrated ambiguity in the period leading up to the US elections. Like many other world figures – especially Xi and Putin who are bound to have been offering him advice – Kim must be pondering his options as real doubt is emerges about the outcome of the US elections, especially :
. how much would Trump be willing to concede in an effort to gain some “announcables” allowing him to spin some success on this key political goal – given Trump’s casual association with facts?
. are the prospects of concession better for the DPRK from the second term of a re-elected Trump – if so what should they do to assist that outcome?
. if Biden continues to lead in the opinion polls, should the DPRK be making some early contacts with him and even assist him? Biden has remained careful about his views on Korea but the team of advisers working with him do have experience on the issue but little novel to suggest.
As reported in earlier P&I’s, the re-emergence and elevation of Kim ‘s younger sister Kim Yo-jong and the Kim’s long absences have attracted much speculation – even about succession. Kim’s seeming reining in of his sister’s aggressive stance in her initial comments and her subsequent public statement repeating some of the bluster and pouring cold water on another summit before the US elections certainly smacks of the “good cop: bad cop” routine. But her comment that the main reason for not having another summit was that without signs of likely change by Trump such a meeting would damage the personal friendship between Trump and Kim looks very much like a bait!
There are a few other cards in the pack for this poker game. First and foremost, is China. The ROK’s worst nightmare has always been that the North Korean problem would end up as sideshow to the main event being the US:China relationship and the future of Taiwan. Early in his tenure, Trump had recognised that a strong personal relationship with Xi would be fundamental to any big deals he could strike bilaterally with China. And that this could also be critical in gaining China’s pivotal support for the denuclearisation of the DPRK. Initially, Xi seemed responsive to Trump’s urgings on the DPRK but as time has passed – especially as the Washington:Beijing relationship has deteriorated – China has become no longer the ace in the hand for the US with Pyongyang.
The more that Trump has ramped up his across-the-board vitriol against China the less he can rely on its support in pressuring Kim to the negotiating table. As the China blame game has become so obviously central to his re-election bid so that has altered significantly the negotiating field with the DPRK. It was no coincidence this week that Pyongyang has celebrated enthusiastically the 60th anniversary of the basic China:DPRK Treaty and unusually taken to task Secretary of State Pompeo for his hard line on the South China Sea.
Another, is the ROK. Bolton has drawn a very clear difference between US goals and those of the ROK – a bit exaggerated but reasonably accurate: for the US the name of the game is denuclearisation while for President Moon it is lowering of military temperature and reconciliation – the Sunshine Policy. As Bolton reported this makes for some uneasy times between Moon and Trump – which the DPRK has always been keen to exploit. Trump’s personal grudges against South Koreans continues as an awkward irritant.
The Republican Governor of Maryland has recounted to recently how Trump dumped on Moon and the South Koreans at a meeting of Republican Governors earlier this year. Trump reportedly expressed very warm personal views on Xi, Kim Jong-un and Abe ( a “golf buddy’!) but castigated Moon and complained again about the failure of the ROK to share the costs appropriately for the stationing of US troops there – about which Bolton claims Trump has an idee fixe despite counter efforts of all his advisers. Again the North’s calibrated ambiguity has been at play again recently with its hostility towards the ROK including over propaganda balloons and the destruction of the Liaison Office in Kaesong but a few more recent signs of some softening towards Moon
This leaves a Trump who surely hankers for another “PR event” with the North from which he could spin a tale of success – but still refusing to relent on some partial lifting of sanctions in return for a further move on denuclearisation by the North. This will really test his vaunted deal-making capacity and penchant for the unpredictable as November approaches – Pompeo’s recent public assertion that Trump is prepared to have another summit before the elections only if some progress can be assured not withstanding!