Just over a year has gone by since US President Donald Trump met with Chairman of the DPRK State Affairs Commission Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. It was the second North Korean-American summit to be held, following on from the first 2018 North Korea–United States Singapore Summit. Many were surprised that the meeting ended without any concrete agreements being made, due to a variety of reasons. The primary disagreements between the two sides were made more difficult to resolve due to actions taken by American conservatives and domestic politics in the United States at the time, which prevented Trump from making any concessions.
The talks which followed between working groups and high-level officials also ended without any visible results. A brief meeting between the Supreme leader of the DPRK and the US President on the sidelines of Trump’s visit to South Korea was little more than a media photo op, and the working-level talks in Stockholm got off to a bad start: North Korea demanded that Washington come up with a new plan by the end of 2019 if the US wants denuclearization talks.
Towards the end of 2019, the North Korean leader gave a clear delineation of relations between the two countries, yet Kim Jong-un did not keep his promise to deliver a “Christmas gift”, by which he meant a demonstration of North Korea’s new strategic weapons. As it was put at the time, “the door is closed, but not locked.” There are several different explanations given for this. Pro-Pyongyang experts say Kim made a gesture of goodwill. Others believe that China used its leverage to make North Korea call off the demonstration and avoid exasperating the situation. We would like to add that given the increased attention the DPRK was receiving during this period (due to its satellites, constant use of reconnaissance aircraft, etc.), it would not have made sense for Pyongyang to “show its cards” at the time.
Failed efforts to impeach Donald Trump did not help them make any progress either, and the DPRK conducted a planned short-range missile launch which almost coincided with the anniversary of the summit. This missile test and others have yet to quell discussions over whether North Korea’s defense industry is modern, or whether its rusty missiles have been cobbled together using stolen technologies from Ukraine, China or Russia.
The outcome has been summed up in the South Korean media: “One year on since the meeting in Hanoi, the North Korean situation seems to have reverted back to its former state”. Given the current situation, I would like to discuss the prospects for this dialog between the United States and North Korea based on a series of quotes made on March 4-6, 2020.
Let’s start with Trump, who was posed a question on his 2020 presidential campaign trail about what he would do with North Korea if re-elected. The question sparked an enthusiastic response: the US President stressed that his relationship with Kim is “very good,” but insisted that he has not given anything to the communist regime and that sanctions have not been lifted. At the same time, Donald Trump reiterated that the policies being put forward by his opponents would lead to a big war with the DPRK, and also took credit for the beginning of inter-Korean rapprochement.
The US President actually dismissed the fact that a short-range missile was launched: “No reaction,” was what he had to say. Unlike at previous events, he did not even try to play this card in the UN Security Council. On March 5, the Security Council discussed this issue, but the North Korean issue was raised in a separate category for additional topics at a meeting about Syria. Immediately after the meeting, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia adopted a joint statement condemning the actions of the DPRK and calling on Pyongyang to resume negotiations on denuclearization, but it should be noted that this statement is meaningless from a legal point of view, and the United States did not participate in it.
Interestingly, the South Korean authorities took a more right-wing position. During a speech at South Korea’s Air Force Academy on March 4, President Moon Jae-in pointed out the unpredictability of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and underlined the importance of an impregnable defense. The South Korean media also rebuked Trump. They say the US President “brushed off North Korea’s missile tests, even though they are prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions” and instead took credit for Pyongyang’s suspension of its long-range missile tests and nuclear tests.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities pose an “increasingly complicated” threat, as the regime seeks to modernize its missile systems. When asked whether North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles pose a threat to the United States, his answer was affirmative.
But on a tactical level, the United States “stands ready to resume denuclearization negotiations with North Korea as soon as possible and hopes to hear back from the regime.” Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Christopher Ford made this comment on March 5: “From a State Department perspective, it remains true that we are ready and willing and prepared for the beginning of working-level discussions with North Korea – in which they will, one hopes, implement the commitments made in Singapore.”
Lastly, we will consider the public opinion on this issue in the United States. A recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 52% of Americans view North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a critical threat. That is a large amount of people, but this figure had been 75% at the height of tensions in 2017.
When asked which country poses the greatest threat to the United States, 13% of respondents chose North Korea. The DPRK came in behind Iran (34%), Russia (28%) and China (16%). In 2017, North Korea ranked the highest among these four countries at 59%.
Out of the list of options on how to deal with the North’s nuclear program, tighter economic sanctions received the most support, with 73%.
According to Chicago Council on Global Affairs who conducted the poll, these results are not so much a reflection of the lack of progress that has been made on the diplomatic front, but rather stem from the prolonged absence of noticeable tension and a weakening of the perception of North Korea as a threat.
What can we expect? According to the information the Chicago think tank has gleaned from respondents, there is a sort of informal directive being followed in Washington: make no sudden movements in any direction before the November elections. Amid the race for the White House, fussing over the relations between the United States and North Korea would hardly have a positive effect on Trump’s approval ratings, and certainly should not see them fall.
It became clear to both sides during the working talks that with the time that has passed since Hanoi, the DPRK is prepared to make a certain number of concessions, but Pyongyang is demanding that they are met with proportionate actions in return. Washington is not prepared to take these steps, because the idea of easing sanctions flies in the face of American dogma, and according to this dogma, Kim Jong-un did not cooperate as a gesture of goodwill, but because he was pressured into doing so by an unprecedented level of sanctions. The belief is therefore that this is the main leverage America has to force North Korea into negotiations, and they cannot let up on it.
In the run-up to the election, it is therefore very important “not to get on Kim Jong-un’s nerves”, because any sort of tough response from North Korea will hurt Trump’s campaign, who is still selling his electorate the idea that relations between Washington and Pyongyang would be much worse under any other American president.
Of course, Trump could hardly say no to another photo-op meeting, but both sides know that they can only hold so many of these purely symbolic events, and they have already reached their limit, now they must have something to show for all those handshakes, posing in front of flashing cameras.
This is where we should note the debate among experts regarding the motives of each side. One theory is that Kim and Trump would both like to get more out of the talks, but are prepared to settle for a minor victory, where no answer can be found, but the search for one can continue once the process is put on pause. The view other experts take is that Trump believes the denuclearization of North Korea is a real possibility, but it has been put on hold while he is busy with his re-election campaign, and he is working according to his belief that during the next ten years, something could happen that could change North Korea’s position. However, we must not forget that nuclear weapons are seen in Pyongyang as an unambiguous guarantee of the regime’s survival. This is not only a lesson for Libya, but Iran should also take note (be it the American actions on the Iran nuclear deal or the assassination of General Soleimani).
The pause is likely to go on until the US presidential election is held, but then what? If Trump wins, American political analysts have two theories. One is that Kim will continue the “period of peaceful respite”, devoting his energy to making a few final arrangements so that the economy will be more prepared if it is hit with another round of sanctions. The moratorium will remain abandoned, especially given that it had only ever been a verbal promise, and it was the ultimate failure of the summit in Hanoi that prevented it from being transformed into a written commitment.
The second theory is that North Korea is truly disappointed with the strategic prospects of the dialog. Kim had hoped that it could lead to sanctions being lifted, but it turned out that the materials from the December 2019 plenum ruled this out as something he cannot even dream about, and he now sees the need to move as quickly as possible to increase the country’s military might with nuclear weapons and missiles, in order to ensure a guaranteed level of deterrence. In this context, we can expect to hear about ICBM launches with missiles fired on a flat trajectory, or the hypothetical Hwasong-20, which is said to have no problem reaching anywhere on US territory.
The long-awaited North Korean Navy’s Sinpo class submarine is no less likely to make an appearance, capable of carrying 3-4 missiles with nuclear warheads. We believe it could be revealed as North Korea’s “new strategic weapon”.
What if the Democrats win? There may not necessarily be a radical change of course under a slogan like “anything but what Trump did.” A large number of officials from the Democratic Party who write the bills that are then signed by politicians in government are gradually coming around to the idea that we will have to live with a nuclear North Korea.
Therefore, after weighing up the best and worst options in comparison with the current status quo, we hope that the dialog will continue after November 2020, or that the two sides will finally meet again by the next anniversary of the Hanoi summit.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.