25 May 2018

The Trump-Kim summit is off?

It has been a confusing fortnight if one is an observer of the North Korean nuclear issue and the recent U.S.-North Korea rapprochement.

At the beginning of May, the meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, announcement of the Panmunjom Declaration, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang, and the finalization of the date and location of the Trump-Kim summit, gave the world cause for hope that the long-brewing North Korea nuclear issue could – finally – be resolved.

In a stunning turnaround last week, Pyongyang cancelled high-level talks with Seoul in response to the Max Thunder U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which it considered a “rude and wicked provocation”. In addition, North Korea’s statement carried by its state media said that “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue” (emphasis added in italics).

Pyongyang would therefore “reconsider” its participation at the scheduled summit with President Trump on 12 June in Singapore. Citing “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed” from the North Korean regime in a letter addressed to Kim, U.S. President Donald Trump called off the summit last night.

This dramatic reversal – following months of shuttle diplomacy where Pyongyang’s diplomats and its Supreme Leader made trips to South Korea, China and Russia promising denuclearization to de-escalate the nuclear crisis – raises concerns over the schizophrenia of North Korea and the trustworthiness of any deal reached with it, even if the Trump-Kim summit proceeded.

But Pyongyang is not schizophrenic. Indeed, its ‘two faces’ – showing goodwill toward coming to the table for denuclearization talks; yet issuing veiled threats to withdraw from talks in response to perceived U.S.-South Korean ‘aggression’ – is part of an elaborate strategy to secure its national security interests. Three points of analysis support this conclusion.

Pyongyang’s Strategic Gambit

First, Pyongyang follows a familiar behavioural pattern to safeguard its national security, which in North Korean terms refers to ensuring survival of the Kim dynasty.

It first escalates tensions and conducts belligerent sabre-rattling, that garners attention from the United States and regional powers concerned about the imminent threat of nuclear war. It then seeks reconciliation and indicates a willingness to voluntarily denuclearize and de-escalate tensions. This, of course, must be accompanied with concessions from the U.S. and the international community that incentivises Pyongyang to surrender its strategic deterrent.

Once concessions are delivered, it tends to renege on the agreements negotiated, revert to bellicose rhetoric and restart its nuclear program – and the whole cycle of escalation, de-escalation, appearing agreeable to denuclearize in return for benefits, and securing these benefits, starts again.

It is no different this time.

After gifting concessions to the U.S. in apparent signs of goodwill – including a promise not to conduct nuclear or missile tests, the dismantling of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site and releasing three Americans imprisoned in North Korea – the accusation that U.S.-South Korea military drills threatens its security is an attempt to arm-twist Washington into postponing or cancelling these exercises by claiming that it is only fair they be halted as a reciprocal gesture of friendliness. Therefore, Pyongyang’s threats to cancel the summit serve its security interests, because it has long viewed these joint military exercises as a prelude to an American invasion and potential regime change.

Second, Pyongyang’s ‘two faces’ improves its negotiating position at discussions, if they even happen.

The same strategy applies – because the North has already granted and implemented sizable concessions, this strengthens its hand in demanding reciprocal concessions that the U.S. would not usually be willing to accede to.

In other words, seizing the first-mover advantage to broadcast goodwill – without explicitly requesting anything from the U.S. in return – provides Pyongyang with the moral high ground to request for prized bargaining chips congruent with its security interests. These include cancelling joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, drawing down U.S. troops in Korea and removing the nuclear umbrella sheltering the South.

If Washington was unwilling to put these options on the table, Pyongyang could cry foul, portray itself as being the target of aggression by the ‘imperialist’ U.S. and decry its lack of flexibility and sincerity in coming to a mutually acceptable deal. Goodwill and threats are thus two sides of the same coin that the North has always leveraged to achieve its regime survival objective.

Third, the North’s ‘two faces’ provides grounds for its erstwhile allies to project diplomatic support for its endeavours.

For instance, as Pyongyang escalated its nuclear tests and rhetoric in late 2017, Beijing had no choice but to support Washington’s UN economic sanctions as the North was threatening the region and the U.S. with nuclear war. But with the deliberate show of goodwill and rapprochement in recent months, Beijing can now point to the concessions Pyongyang has delivered as signs of its demonstrated commitment to settle the nuclear issue, and demand that Washington take a softer stance and seriously consider the North’s terms.

In recent days, statements emanating from Beijing have started to show indications of this positioning, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying that North Korea’s efforts to solve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula should be “fully recognized, encouraged, welcomed and supported”.

Importantly, with Beijing’s – and perhaps Moscow’s – support of Pyongyang, it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. to impose harsher UN Security Council sanctions. Now that the Trump-Kim summit is unilaterally scrapped by Washington, China and Russia can veto sanctions on grounds that the U.S. failed to live up its end of the bargain, placing the responsibility squarely on Washington. It must also be noted that some of Pyongyang’s demands are likely aligned with Beijing and Moscow’s security interests, especially the withdrawal of troops from Seoul and a reduced U.S. military presence in the region.

Therefore, the seemingly opposing ‘goodwill-and-threaten’ strategies are actually complementary in achieving Pyongyang’s objectives – all in an attempt to stack the odds in its favour and strong-arm the party with the stronger negotiating hand into making massive concessions.

What Should the United States Have Done?

While it is now likely too late to salvage the ill-fated summit, these developments provide an opportunity to analyze the ‘what-could-have-been-done’ scenarios.

On hindsight, following the last belligerent statement from Pyongyang, the White House should have declared that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the envisaged outcome that everyone in the region – and indeed the world – wishes to see. This would have made clear – if it was not before – that the Trump-Kim summit is meant to discuss terms toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, a goal that Beijing and Moscow similarly publicly ascribe to.

Until such time these terms are agreed, U.S.-South Korea military exercises are not meant to threaten North Korea’s security in any way – and should continue. Indeed, it would have been advantageous for Pyongyang to come to the table, where its requests and security concerns can be negotiated directly with the leader of the free world.

Such a firm clarification re-establishes – unambiguously – the core objective of the summit, reiterates the ironclad rationale for conducting allied joint exercises and would have inserted the ball back into Pyongyang’s court on whether the summit should proceed. The U.S. would have then regained the negotiating advantage and set the expectations straight on the envisaged summit outcomes – instead of permitting the perpetuation of the tilted playing field engendered by Pyongyang’s deft navigation of regional geopolitics.

Sadly, it may now be too late to rectify the situation, and the world is back at square one in dealing with a nuclear North Korea.

Jansen Tham is a 2nd year Masters in Public Policy (MPP) student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.