The abrupt cancellation of next month’s planned meeting between the North Korean and US leaders should surprise no one. Developments in recent weeks exposed three factors that doomed the initiative to collapse.
When US President Donald Trump abruptly canceled his summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, he blamed “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the North. In fact, the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, was doomed for three reasons.
But the Americans concluded that international sanctions had brought North Korea to its knees, leaving Kim desperate to conclude a deal on US terms. Part of the US strategy was to place additional pressure on China to rein in its client state or itself face tough financial penalties from Washington.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who deserves the most credit for recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, unwittingly stoked this misperception by attributing his summit with Kim to Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on the North. This was calculated flattery on Moon’s part. By validating Trump’s self-serving belief that tough sanctions bend countries to America’s will, Moon gained political cover from US foreign-policy hawks unhappy about diplomatic overtures to Kim.
Unfortunately, endorsement of this narrative emboldened the US hardliners now surrounding Trump to prevail upon him to exit the Iran nuclear deal. To Kim, who expects to rule for decades, the reinstatement of US sanctions against Iran signaled that a deal concluded with one administration could be canceled without penalty by the next. To China (and Russia), it signaled the futility of falling in line with US demands against an ally and the pointlessness of engaging in tough multi-party negotiations over several years. To the rest of the world, it highlighted America’s growing international isolation.
The second reason for the summit’s cancellation was contradictory understandings of “denuclearization” – the single most critical issue in the entire episode. The US, believing Kim had buckled under pressure, understood this to mean achievement of its long-sought goal of “CVID”: complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. The North, mistakenly concluding that its nuclear deterrent had brought Trump to the summit, believed it was on the cusp of achieving its own long-sought goal: a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including an end to the US nuclear umbrella for Japan and South Korea. If it played its cards right, it could even end the US alliance with South Korea and Japan, with all US troops withdrawing from East Asia.
The North Koreans made it abundantly clear that they understood what can happen to regimes that pick fights with America without having the ultimate weapon. They were very conscious of what happened to Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar el-Qaddafi. And the example of Qaddafi turned out to be especially important.
After abandoning his quest for nuclear weapons in exchange for normalization of relations with the US and the world, Qaddafi died a horrible death (during which he was tortured and sodomized with a bayonet). And then, on April 30, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, made the incendiary suggestion that North Korea could follow the “Libya model” of denuclearization.
Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan delivered the North’s furious response: “We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him.” The North was not interested in a dialogue aimed at a coerced “unilateral nuclear abandonment.” The “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met miserable fates.”
Although Trump distanced himself from Bolton’s remarks, Vice President Mike Pence warned three weeks later that if North Korea did not make a deal, it would indeed meet with Libya’s fate. Choe Son Hui, vice minister of foreign affairs, replied by threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” if Washington stuck to “unlawful and outrageous” belligerence.
So what happens next? If North Korea resumes nuclear and long-range missile tests, Trump, whose instinct is to escalate the rhetoric of conflict, will come under pressure to respond forcefully. Amid a re-run of last year’s lurid schoolyard taunts – “little rocket man” and “mentally deranged dotard” – Moon will be desperate to rescue a semblance of improvement in relations with the North. Kim could try to drive a deep wedge between South Korea and the US. Japan’s hardline Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is probably relieved that the summit has been called off.
The best the rest of the world can hope for is that, however slim the prospects, a diplomatic process will be maintained, along with channels of clear, accurate communication. A modest goal would be to reach an agreement to keep North Korea’s nuclear and missile program at current levels of capability.
But the US may have cornered itself by rejecting such a cap with respect to Iran. Having made the perfect the enemy of the good in the Middle East, the Trump administration will find it humiliating to agree to a comparable arrangement on the Korean Peninsula. For Trump, the art of breaking deals is more important.
Ramesh Thakur, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, is emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
This article was first posted in Project Syndicate on May 25, 2018.