North Korean and US relations have oscillated between hostility and limited detente for decades. This has only grown more intense in recent years. What are the underlying drivers in US-North Korean relations in the age of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un?
For almost seven decades since the Korean War, North Korea has maintained a tenuous relationship with the international community, particularly with the portion of the international community allied with the United States. It has alternated between long periods of confrontation/tension/impasse and shorter periods of negotiation/limited detente.
The historical pattern of confrontation alternating with negotiations is being repeated today with three key differences:
- the negotiation/detente portion of the equation is being played out at a much higher level than previously, in summits between leaders;
- both sides of the equation are happening in real-time before the world media; and
- the alternating periods of confrontation/tension/impasse and negotiation/detente are taking place in a compressed time frame with ongoing impasse punctuated by summits.
The key variants in the situation are the mercurial US President Donald Trump and the enigmatic, dynastic North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the relationship with each other, which they have established and both value. Currently, both sides are pursuing dual policies but in an asymmetrical fashion that makes the alignment of positions problematic and the prediction of outcomes fraught with uncertainty.
Further, Donald Trump has unwittingly led the North Koreans to believe that the only worthwhile negotiations are with him. Therefore it is no wonder when negotiations at officials level either stall as in Stockholm in October 2019 or do not occur at all.
Arguably of the two, it is the US which is displaying a more erratic and inconsistent approach and the North Koreans who have a coherent policy, albeit towards a goal objectionable to much of the international community.
There is a clear disconnect between the approach of President Trump and, at least, part of his National Security team, a disconnect that the North Koreans are attempting to exploit and increase.
Currently, both sides are pursuing dual policies but in an asymmetrical fashion that makes the alignment of positions problematic and the prediction of outcomes fraught with uncertainty.
Historically, US policy has been one of maintaining sanctions until and unless North Korea delivers complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID). That has been supported by a host of UN Security Council resolutions – led by the US – barring North Korea from a range of activities including the multiple short-range missile tests that North Korea has conducted in the last few months. That remains the official US position.
However Donald Trump has injected a major element of ambiguity and incoherence into US policy with his Summits, his declarations of friendship for Kim Jong-un and unabashed delight in receiving letters from Kim – call this pen pal diplomacy if you will – his contradictory statements about North Korean intentions, his public indifference to recent North Korean missile tests, his criticism of US/South Korean military exercises and his provocative criticism of South Korea with his unjustified and inaccurate attacks on this most loyal of US allies as a defence freeloader.
The result of this is a somewhat schizophrenic US policy. There are Summits with North Korea full of friendly declarations of cooperation, trust and bonhomie and what comes in between Summits when US officials have hewed more or less to the traditional US position of no relief for sanctions without complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization and “slow walks” of the “progress” that the President has claimed to have seen at his meetings with Kim Jong-un. As in other areas of US foreign policy, Donald Trump seems often strangely disconnected from his negotiators.
US-North Korean Policy coherence also suffers from a lack of inter-agency coordination. Indeed recently departed National Security Advisor, John Bolton had reportedly abandoned even the pretence of inter-agency consultation. Instead, US policy seems to reflect who has the last word with Donald Trump on any given day and how this matches his whims and inclinations at that moment. It remains to be seen to what extent the new National Security Adviser will restore inter-agency coordination and what difference this will make with Trump.
The departure of Bolton who opposed the DMZ meeting of Trump and Kim and persuaded Trump to take a hard-line approach at the Hanoi Summit makes it more likely that US policy will tilt more towards an agreement than has hitherto been the case. And that may have been reflected in the reported approach of US negotiators in the recent talks in Stockholm.
Having said that, even without John Bolton, any agreement by Donald Trump will be done in the face of the near consensus of North Korean experts including foreign and American experts and those in the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council and US intelligence agencies that North Korea will never give up a nuclear weapons capability which after all has brought it face time with the most powerful person in the world. This assessment clashes directly with the cherished view of Donald Trump.
On the North Korean side, there is also a dual approach, but it does not reflect a division in policy for in North Korea, there can be no dissent from the leader’s approach. Instead, what we see are North Korean tactical moves which are part of a broader strategy.
However, while the North Korean side is coherent, the pursuit of that policy has its own constraints and limits.
There are four fundamental truths that must be kept in mind when examining North Korean policy and actions. First, the number one priority for North Korea was and is the security of the regime and the state – which in the view of the regime are one and the same.
Second, it believes that regime security can only be guaranteed by a nuclear and missile capability which alone can deter a US hell-bent on regime change. I am not saying that the North Korean assessment of US intentions is correct – but it is their assessment and their fear.
Third, the North Korean regime is not suicidal. It is not about to launch a nuclear attack on the US or for that matter, Japan or South Korea which would end in its own destruction. In my experience with the US military, they always dealt with North Korea as a rational actor. However, accidents and miscalculation do happen, and that is always a danger.
North Korea has sought to develop a combination of tactics which will simultaneously allow it to maintain its nuclear capability and lift the burden of sanctions.
Fourth, North Korea’s national security also requires economic strength and, however, ingenious North Korea has been in evading sanctions, sanctions evasion is, at best, a holding action. For real economic performance, North Korea requires relief of sanctions.
With those strategic objectives in mind, North Korea has sought to develop a combination of tactics which will simultaneously allow it to maintain its nuclear capability and lift the burden of sanctions. That needle is difficult to thread in the face of the long-time US position, which demands total denuclearization before the relief of sanctions. But the eye of the needle is considerably larger if President Trump can be persuaded to accept less than the maximalist US position. And, arguably, with the departure of John Bolton, the eye of the needle has gotten larger.
So the success of the North Korean approach depends on the relationship between Kim and Trump and the willingness of the US President to deviate from conventional US policy.
All North Korean measures should be viewed in light of their strategic objectives and their tactical approach to Donald Trump.
Some of the North Korean tactics are familiar – a leaf from the previous handbook (i.e. offer to destroy obsolete facilities etc.) while others are new (i.e. personal letters from the North Korean leader to the US President) but all are aligned with the basic strategy.