President Trump’s announcement of a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in late February at an agreed but as yet unspecified location ( probably Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh) has reactivated interest in the search for a resolution of the “Korean crisis”. It followed a flurry of activity among key stakeholders over the past few weeks.
After what had seemed a period of little activity , overshadowed by other international and domestic issues for the US North Korea is back on the headlines again. Prompted by :
- Kim’s visit to Beijing for meetings with President Xi (which had also preceded the Singapore Trump/Kim Summit),
- the eventual opening of meetings between the US and North Korean negotiating teams in Stockholm ( the first time the two heads of delegation had met – after months of seemingly little action),
- an exchange of letters between Presidents Moon and Kim and continuing intra-Korean discussions aimed at lowering tensions and expanding cooperation on the peninsula,
- telephone conversations between Presidents Trump and Moon
- senior South Korean intelligence official’s visit to Washington.
All of this culminated in the visit to Washington by Kim Yong-chol (Kim Jong-un’s close aide) conveying a letter (details unannounced) setting out Kim Jong-un’s position on the key areas of difference and proposing a Second Summit.
Given the long tangled history of this issue, it is hard not to discount the prospects for real and concrete progress at the Second Summit as “plus ca change”! This view would only be reinforced by a recent speech by Vice President Pence ( ( tightly scripted and published by the State Department) where he appears once again in “attack dog” mode with some very harsh words for the North Korean leadership. But there are some interesting takeouts from this present situation which offer a possible vague glimmer at the end of the tunnel.
First and foremost , significant long term progress on resolving peacefully the North Korean problem would be a major feather in Trump’s cap ( even a possible Nobel prize) as he heads towards 2020. His initial boasts about “fixing” North Korea and his proclaimed “love” of Kim Jong-un followed by the growing public realisation that he was outwitted in the Singapore Summit will demand such progress as he prepares his re-election bid. Despite repeated public reassurances of his being tough on North Korea (bolstered by National Security Adviser Bolton although he has been deliberately left out of the inner loop on this) it will be difficult for him to avoid some concessions if he wants to emerge from the Summit with some identifiable achievements – suitably camouflaged in spin if need be. No doubt Kim (and Xi) will be banking on this as he pursues his core strategy of elevating decision making as much as possible to Trump’s personal level.
China’s role will continue to be extremely important. Inevitably this will be interconnected with China’s bilateral relations with the US – especially, but not exclusively, on tariffs etc. Small differences in the wording of the Chinese and DPRK press briefings on the Kim visit have been interpreted by some as suggesting that he had tried unsuccessfully to wedge Xi on support for the relaxation of sanctions.
The position of Moon and the ROK in the negotiations process appears to have been strengthened by the ROK being invited to participate directly in the Stockholm talks between the US and the DPRK. Until now in this phase, the DPRK has sought to restrict the talks to the US only. Moon and Kim have had to defer their own Summit slated for Seoul until after the Trump:Kim summit. South Korean media have reported that planning for this Korean Summit is now well underway for a date soon after that of Trump and Kim. US pressure on Moon to proceed carefully in his strategy of tension reduction and greater cooperation has persisted. The US has also asked the ROK to increase substantially its share of “defense cost sharing” with the US – to US$ 1.2 billion – and cut it back from a 5 year to a 1year agreement”. Moon’s polling has continued to decline throughout this period as South Koreans grew less confident of the success of his North Korean strategy – “Sunshine 2.0”.
At the same time the preparation for the second Trump:Kim Summit has been much more methodical and in keeping with normal international practice than was that for Singapore. Nonetheless, the pivotal question of denuclearisation (even what it actually means to each side!) remains well short of resolution. In essence the issue has been how to negotiate through a situation in which :
- the US has steadfastly refused to budge on easing US sanctions or those imposed by the UN until the DPRK has “completely” denuclearised. Known as CVID ( “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement”)
- the North has argued that “complete” denuclearisation can only be achieved through a phased process over time because of its complexity. And that it has shown willing already by the closure of some facilities – including its fledgling ICBM manufacture (which removes a DPRK capacity to launch against the US mainland!). It has also steadfastly argued that denuclearisation extends to the whole Korean peninsula which must include any US nuclear capable deployment in South Korea or Korean territorial airspace or sea.
The latter would pose major problems for the US not only for its alliance with the ROK but also that with Japan. Some US scientists familiar with the DPRK’s nuclear facilities also point out that even preparing a complete inventory of the North’s fissile material could well prove almost impossible given the amounts consumed in past nuclear tests and weapons manufacture – and in ventures like the aborted project in Syria.
The above stand off between the US and the DPRK clearly has to be managed down before any serious progress can be registered on the whole issue. But how to do it ? Skilled wordsmiths and experienced international negotiators would provide a fundamental base but they would need extensive delegated powers to avoid Trump’s destructive style of twitter and and Kim’s gamble on keeping decision making at the President level. Traditionally, a series of confidence building measures ( CBM’s) would be a vital starting point but Trump’s fetish with unpredictability does not bode well for this approach.
There have been a few encouraging signs. The recent US decision to loosen regulations on Americans undertaking NGO operations in the North and the provision of food and medical supplies was one. There have also been speculation on some other areas which could emerge from the Trump:Kim Summit – perhaps bundled as packages which could be presented as confidence building measures :
- DPRK agreement to independent inspection of a nuclear “freeze” at the Yongbyong facility
- opening of a US:DPRK Liaison Office possible in Pyongyang
- easing of US restrictions on the reactivation of the Kaesong Industrial complex just across the border in the DPRK
- Secretary of State Pompeo has recently followed up earlier suggestions from Trump about the opportunities for private sector (especially US) investment in the DPRK – “if we are able to achieve that full denuclearisation… the private sector will be an important player in achieving the final elements of the agreement”
- there are some interesting signs among Korea watchers that there may well be merit in the US preparing to encourage Koreanisation of the peninsula once there is appropriate resolution of the denuclearisation issue.
As I have urged several times earlier in Pearls and Irritations, the latter underline the need for Australia to review urgently our own national interests without undermining major US objectives. We should be working on ways to get a permanent presence in Pyongyang where our accreditation seems still not to have been formalised while many of the EU have. We should also be most wary of the obvious intent of Trump and the US to “Make America Great Again” in the North’s economy!
Mack Williams is Former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea