In his address to the United Nations this week American President Donald Trump sung praises to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Only a year ago at that very spot had Trump threatened to “destroy” the very same country, intensifying the heat in an exchange in which many feared the worst. 2018 however, has been a cordial year. There has been dramatic improvements in inter-Korean relations and most importantly, dialogue between North Korea and America itself. Kim Jong-un would meet with Trump in an unprecedented summit in Singapore. Now, all talk and speculation surrounds the nature of where these so called “denuclearization” talks will lead to. Individuals such as Trump have been profoundly optimistic in public. However, many analysts continue to remain skeptical of the outcomes of this process. For all the flowery talk of peace and better relations, enormous obstacles remain on both sides which inhibit them from making concessions to each other, which poses a challenge for the pathway ahead.
First of all, dialogue has not yet breached a seemingly impermeable barrier of distrust on both sides. North Korea and the United States could not be more cynical concerning the other’s intentions. Pyongyang believes that denuclearisation would be an effective surrendering of all the leverage they have to America, in exchange for a deal which Washington can easily backtrack on. For example, there is the well cited reference to how Libya denuclearized under the rule of Gadaffi, only to face a U.S led regime change years later. Yet this is a weak example. Trump himself offers more explicit reasons why. His presidency tore up a United Nations endorsed agreement with Iran over nuclear proliferation, slapped unilateral sanctions on the country and assumed an extremely confrontational posture. It is easy for America to do this, its hegemonic position, combined with its exceptionalist ideology and sense of self-belief allows enables it to force through unilateral actions at will without accountability. In terms of public support, all it needs to do is showcase the rhetoric of “rogue regime” and “human rights abuse” and a moral case is built for intervention, regardless of the empirical facts and reality. Pyongyang sees this. It recognizes a surrender of its nuclear weapons program entails a complete abandonment of all its cards for sanctions relief America can easily slap back on it at will, and likely in the event of electoral opportunism. It did not build up such a program to readily trade it away on a whim.
On the other hand, America sees concessions and sanctions relief a means to legitmising the North’s nuclear program and allowing it to escape negotiating. As a result, the United States is maintaining a robust position that North Korea receives nothing until it fully denuclearises. Simultaneously, analysts fear that a declaration to end the Korean War before “denuclearisation” would enhance North Korea’s analysts, depriving America of the so called “military option” against their facilities. This combines with the factor above to generate a deadlock, neither are prepared to cede ground in fear of what it will give to the other. Although Moon Jae-in is attempting to mediate a middle ground between the two parties, his hands are tied because his initiatives for inter-Korean engagement cannot progress without concessions from Washington, something which will test Pyongyang’s patience in the long run.
The U.S seems to believe that the maintenance of sanctions will force North Korea’s hand, yet we are seeing scant evidence in this regard. Whilst certainly the imposition of such measures has made Pyongyang think twice about nuclear and missile testing, in the long run they cannot be sufficient to make them kneel to Washington’s demands. The regime is adapt at utilizing patience strategically to “wait out” and change the circumstances around it to its will. History has shown that North Korea is more than prepared to absorb pain, taking advantage of every loophole and gap possible to skirt the sanctions where possible. China and Russia are providing support in this area. Whilst not openly flouting sanctions, they are allowing North Korea to maintain breathing space and preventing America from enforcing measures further, allowing Kim Jong-un to buy time and steer negotiations in his direction.
As a result there is little pressure or urgency for Kim to denuclearize save that America takes a foot forwards and makes some large scale concessions. If such is not the case, then he is very much prepared to drag his feet and “wait out” the age of Trump. Given Trump only yesterday said denuclearization should not be measured in a timeframe, this is playing to his advantage. Even if sanctions concessions are unlikely, evidence shows his charm offensive and kind gestures towards Trump’s ego have been effective measures. The President appears to be adjusting his foreign policy priorities towards China and Iran, who suffered from his inflammatory rhetoric at the United Nations this time round. Accordingly, he is happy to flout North Korea as a success of his Presidency already, which he is pitching towards his supporters.
In this case, the situation is likely to drag out than revert to crisis, but with minimal prospects of a formal solution beyond rhetoric itself. Washington’s interest in returning to confrontation is diminishing, it is something that would also be completely unacceptable on the side of Seoul. Still, one cannot assume North Korea will ever truly give Trump what he wants. They are by no means naive and are always looking to the wider, strategic and long term picture. It is a game executed with great cunningness and skill