Sending the right signals to Pyongyang

Last week, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un met for the second time during the Hanoi Summit in Vietnam. This reunion followed their first encounter in Singapore in June 2018, when the two leaders accepted to start a process of normalisation of bilateral relations and pacification of the Korean Peninsula. The success of the normalisation of US-North Korea relations primarily rested on the denuclearisation of the Peninsula, which the North Koreans would want to be reciprocated with a total lifting of economic sanctions.

None of that happened during the Hanoi Summit, which was branded by many as a failure. In fact, Kim Jong Un made it clear that he would not consider taking steps towards giving up his nuclear arsenal before the US immediately and completely relieved his country of economic sanctions. Understandably, this did not sit well with the American President who decided to walk away, thus abbreviating the Summit.

Already prior to the Summit, there were doubts that Donald Trump’s idiosyncratic diplomacy could reap real benefits. In late 2018, researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, found on satellite images that North Korea was expanding the Yeongjeo-dong missile base. Possibly serving as a shelter for mobile missile launchers, the base’s upgrade directly clashes with the tacit understanding that North Korea would not develop its arsenal and missile infrastructure following the Singapore Summit. This pushed US National Security Advisor John Bolton to say that North Korea has “not lived up to its commitments” since June 2018.

Although on the American side, a genuine desire to give North Korea a chance at redemption exists, on the North Korean side realism and opportunism seem more visible. North Korea is not there for grand gestures and expects an exhausting game of give-and-take. This is why America’s image in North Korea has not changed at all, with officials painting an image of the superpower as an unjust bully, imposing devastating sanctions and which needs to be dealt with strongly through continuous militarisation. Yet, Donald Trump’s overtures and Kim Jong Un’s new found platform on the world stage have probably led the leader into believing that his time in the negotiating room would be brief before benefits would abound.

This is why the Hanoi Summit was a needed wake-up call to Pyongyang as it sent nearly all the right signals. Above all, it showed that in spite of Trump’s particular diplomacy, the odds of US-North Korea relations would still be played in a traditional manner, and not in a highly personal way between two all-powerful leaders. Instead of bypassing the US government and decades of hardened opposition to his regime by directly befriending Trump, Kim Jong Un now should have realised that, if he still wants to see sanctions relief, he will have to nominate key negotiators who will engage in tough negotiations at working-levels, just like the two-years negotiations leading to the JCPOA entailed.

With Russian and Chinese sanctions partially lifted, a more active role in his region and a normalised image for his regime, Kim Jong Un is unlikely to resume the war games that led Donald Trump to warn him with “fire and fury” back in August 2017. Donald Trump also seems to have sensed that the North Korean leader was not yet ready to return to his hermit status as he said: “He’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear… I trust him and I take him at his word”. Trump sought to leave on a good note by maintaining ceremonial praise onto the North Korean leader. He said that he had a “really strong relationship” with Kim Jong Un and his Vice President announced that his administration was still “optimistic” for future developments on the nuclear issue.

By saying that “I hope it will be soon, but it might not be for a long time” in relation to a third Summit, it is possible that Donald Trump also hinted that a new meeting would only take place after negotiations on a working level would lead to significant progress. During the Hanoi Summit, the North Koreans allegedly refused to hold such working-level negotiations between Special Representative Steve Biegun and Ambassador Kim Hook Chol. Trump’s walking away might have given Kim Jong Un the message that he did a mistake by refusing such negotiations.

As in any other bilateral negotiations on such a thorny issue like a country’s nuclear programme and arsenal, it is highly likely that there will not be a third summit before long. Yet, North Korea is now more likely to take negotiations more seriously as Kim Jong Un had to return to Pyongyang without any real achievement. For him however, time is not pressing. Trump is likely to continue the suspension of US-South Korean joint military exercises and China’s partial lifting of sanctions allows his ruling clique to bolster its own economic power and well-being, thus further coup-proofing the regime. Additionally, the current moratorium on missile testing does not really hit North Korea as the country has already developed the adequate technology for long-range ballistic missiles.

Future negotiations are likely to focus on traditional issues pertaining to nuclear negotiations: the extent of constraints on the production of fissile materials and enrichment facilities, the permission for international supervision of all such facilities and the removal of all or some US sanctions. As the Hanoi Summit has shown, one of the most difficult steps toward normalisation of relations will be sequencing such give-ins and take-ins. None of the leaders want to be seen as the first one to give in and stakes to give in first remain relatively small on both sides for particular reasons.

For Trump, North Korea remains an unimportant country and the Singapore Summit an achievement that might already suffice for the goals he envisioned. For Chairman Kim, the current situation is more than tenable, although it might be that the prospect of realising North Korea’s “tremendous potential” as Trump puts it, might turn to be a too attractive option, which would enable him to take his regime to a completely different stage. However, authoritarian oligarchies that rely on strong nationalism such as North Korea, might lose from too much overture to the outside world, and Kim Jong Un is probably cognisant of this fact.

BBC, 27 February 2019, “Trump-Kim talks end” President Donald Trump’s Statement”
CNN, 1 January 2019, “Kim Jong Un sends warning to US”
Newsweek, David Brennan, 28 February 2019, “Why did Donald Trump’s North Korea Summit end early?”
NPR, 1 March 2019, Gary Samore, “Why the Hanoi Summit failure could lead to a real deal”
The Telegraph, 06 December 2018, Nicola Smith, “New satellite images reveal North Korea is expanding key missile base”
Image © Shutterstock