By: Editorial Board, ANU/
Since US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 the situation with North Korea has shifted from a reckless escalation of tensions, to optimism about achieving lasting peace, and back to uncertainty. Donald Trump cancelled the US–DPRK summit, planned for 12 June in Singapore, but now it’s back on again.
How are we to read the state of play between the United States and North Korea and the implications this carries for regional stability?
There was a rapidly growing sense of alarm on both sides of the Korean border that the Trump administration would pursue a so-called ‘bloody nose strategy’ and push the peninsula into a violent conflict not of its own making. Anxieties in Japan and China were also running high. These anxieties undoubtedly were a powerful motivation for peace initiatives around the commitment to tighter UN sanctions on North Korea. They helped South Korean President Moon Jae-in launch his Olympic diplomatic offensive and gain a favourable North Korean response.
Optimism about resolution of the North Korean problem peaked when Trump announced on 3 Marchthat he would meet with Kim Jong-un, in what would be the first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader, and when Moon and Kim held the third ever inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom on 27 April pledging to forge a sustainable peace.
But then in a strange letter to Kim Jong-un, Trump cancelled the summit. Trump criticised North Korea’s hostile remarks about US-South Korea joint military exercises, though this might have been a convenient excuse. While Kim Jong-un seemed to show understanding in his talks with Moon in April, North Korea’s dislike of US–South Korea joint military exercises, which it views as a dress rehearsal for invasion, is well known. The use of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers during the Max Thunder exercise added to North Korean frustrations.
North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan made clear that North Korea was not interested in unilateral nuclear abandonment such as occurred in the case of Libya. The ‘Libyan model’ had been provocatively touted by Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton. US Vice President Mike Pence’s intervention was also seen as hostile or unhelpful by North Korea. It was unsurprising that Pyongyang pushed back on talk of the ‘Libya model’, given that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nascent nuclear program only to meet a gruesome fate at the hands of NATO-backed rebels.
The short timeframe and the still many unfilled senior positions in the State Department make more difficult an already difficult negotiation process. There also seems to be a perception gap between the United States and North Korea about the extent and timing of a potential denuclearisation process. Trump appears set on a quick drawdown whereas the North Koreans want a phased approach and earlier concessions along the way. Rapid denuclearisation would be difficult to orchestrate given North Korea’s insistence on reciprocal negotiations which provide iron-clad guarantees for its post-denuclearisation survival and US wariness of easing pressure on Pyongyang until it demonstrates absolute and verifiable commitment to denuclearisation. A phased approach possibly taking 15 years has now been recommended by leading US experts including Siegfried Hecker, the only American to have seen the North’s uranium facilities.
Trump’s awkward cancellation of the summit first time round may simply have been a tactical ploy, a cunning step towards a better bargain. Trump’s unpredictability, nevertheless, left the region, including US allies such as South Korea and Japan, at sixes and sevens. Seoul was momentarily in deep shock, even if Tokyo was inclined to celebrate. South Korean President Moon’s swift action to convene another summit with North Korea’s Kim brought back a semblance of control and re-established initiative. But it was not the only move that revived the US–DPRK leadership talks.
The ambivalent nature of Trump’s cancellation of the summit and a flurry of tweets over the subsequent few days suggest that Trump was desperate to restore the summit that he had just canned. Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of (North) Korea Kim Yong Chol’s special sanctions exemption to travel to New York for US–DPRK working-level talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and to Washington to deliver a personal letter from Kim Jong-un to Trump provided the chance to resuscitate the Singapore meeting between Trump and Kim.
Glen Fukushima suggests in our lead article this week ‘[b]y meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June, Trump hopes to emulate former US president George W Bush in 2001. The Gallup Poll showed Bush’s approval rating on 1 February 2001 to be only 57 per cent. But by 22 September, it had jumped to 90 per cent as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. After his meeting with Kim Jong-un on 12 June, Trump is certain to declare victory, thereby demonstrating to the world his genius as a dealmaker, his qualifications to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and his right to win the elections in November 2018 and 2020′.
Meanwhile Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has deftly pirouetted back into the game. Abe has been dealt a few very bad hands by Trump and his team, including the looming threat of a 25 per cent tariff on Japanese automobile exports to the United States. But he’s managed to schedule a meeting with Trump in Washington on 7 June, five days before the off-and-on-again 12 Junemeeting, in order to make a last-ditch plea to include in the Trump–Kim meeting the return of Japanese abductees, the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and the dismantling of not only North Korea’s missiles that can reach the continental United States, but also the short- and medium-range missiles that can hit Japan.
As Fukushima concludes, both Trump and Abe are under immense political pressure at home and a foreign policy victory could be critical, in different ways, to their electoral salvation.
This article was first published in the East Asia Forum.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.