Causes and results of recent North Korea-US negotiations

Causes and results of recent North Korea-US negotiations

In September 2017 US President, Donald Trump, and North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un were engaged in a furious interchange of insults and threats. However, less than a year later “Little rocket man” – as Trump called Kim in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly – and the “mentally deranged US dotard” – as Kim would retort to Trump – would be exchanging “beautiful” letters and signing a vaguely worded declaration. What changed?


In my previous blog, I outlined key drivers and limitations of US-North Korean relations over the long term and how they have developed under the leadership of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. The following discusses five key dynamics for the North Koreans that have led to the recent dramatic but tenuous thaw in relations between the Washington and Pyongyang and the results of this easing of tensions.

By the end of 2017, the North Koreans had satisfied themselves that their medium and long-range missile tests had provided them with a real nuclear capability, demonstrated that capability to the international community and given them confidence that they could approach negotiations from a position of strength.


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It was at that point, in his 2018 New Year’s address, that Kim Jong-un adopted a conciliatory tone to South Korea, the US and the international community. The stars had aligned for Kim, and he had a ready audience in both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump.

Most important, despite Trump’s fire and fury rhetoric, the North Koreans believed that the US president was averse to any actual conflict and that they could take advantage of this. Moreover, Kim knew that Trump was keen to break with US foreign policy orthodoxies and especially with the policy of his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama.

The result has been a series of summits between the North Korean and South Korean leaders and between the North Korean and US leaders.

To date, the summits have changed the tone but not the substance of relations between North Korea and the US.

The meetings between Kim and Trump have increased in spectacle in proportion to their lack of substance and follow-up.

The first in Singapore in June 2018 was high on spectacle and light on substance – basically an ambiguous declaration which laid the seeds of the impasse in the months that followed.

The second in Hanoi in February 2019 was all spectacle and no substance with the Summit collapsing amid mistaken assumptions and miscommunications. In Hanoi, Trump presented the North Koreans with an ultimatum – crafted by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and guaranteed to be rejected by Kim – give up all your nuclear capacity before any sanctions are lifted.

To date, the summits have changed the tone but not the substance of relations between North Korea and the US

Bolton may have persuaded Donald Trump that this was a viable proposal, though Bolton could never have believed that North Korea would ever accept this. Unsurprisingly the weeks and months after Hanoi were marked by total impasse with no negotiations between the US and North Korea.

South Korea tried to pick up the slack with President Moon arranging another Summit with Kim. But the South Koreans could not move forward without American compliance. As a result, the North Koreans pay little regard to South Korea, which is continuously at risk of being marginalized in the process, even though they have more at risk than any other country.

The third meeting between Kim and Trump on June 30, 2019, at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) (over the objections of Bolton who was conspicuously absent), reflected Trump’s impatience at the failure in Hanoi and the lack of progress in the following weeks. But again, the spectacle of the two leaders meeting at the DMZ could not disguise the lack of substance – this was all sizzle and no meat.

The weeks immediately following the DMZ meeting were devoid of any substantive negotiation. Instead, from the North Korean side, there were multiple short-range missile tests and harsh words interspersed with a “nice letter” to Donald Trump from Kim and a reply. Then in September came an offer from North Korea to resume negotiations at officials’ level.  This meeting occurred in early October 2019 and quickly ended in an impasse.


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For their part, the US undertook a joint US/South Korean military exercise in August 2019 (which Trump disparaged as “ridiculous and expensive”) but in November 2019, the US and South Korea indefinitely postponed another joint exercise as a goodwill gesture.  Moreover, Trump gave Kim a pass over his missile tests, despite concerns expressed by US government officials, South Korea and Japan and Trump’s acknowledgement that they violated UN sanctions and even though North Korea carried out at least 20 short-range missile tests between May 2019 and October 2019.

In carrying out his tests, Kim is pursuing five objectives:

First, the tests are not an alternative to negotiations. They are meant to persuade the US and particularly Donald Trump to resume talks with a more conciliatory package than Trump presented in Hanoi. As high level and well-informed South Koreans told me, and other international experts invited to a conference in Seoul in 2019, the tests are meant “to shake not break the system.”

North Korea has declared that it wants an agreement with the US by the end of 2019 “or else”. Their missile tests are an example of the “or else”.

In this regard, the tests are carefully calibrated to prod rather than enrage Donald Trump. And he has responded in kind. As long as Kim refrains from testing long-range missiles or nuclear devices, he appears to have been given a free pass by Trump.

Second, the tests are meant to try to separate Trump from his hawkish national security advisers.

Third, they also serve as an attempt to separate the US from its regional allies, namely South Korea and Japan in that the short-range missiles pose a much greater risk to South Korea and Japan than to the US. In doing so, North Korea pursues a longstanding objective of weakening the US/South Korean alliance. Trump aids and abets this with his questioning of US/South Korean military exercises and his regular complaints about the cost of maintaining US troops in South Korea.

Fourth, the tests are meant to perfect the technical performance of these short-range missiles, thereby strengthening the hand of North Korean negotiators in future.

Not only are the North Koreans perfecting the performance of different types of missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan, but these missiles are also reportedly capable of evading air defence systems in South Korea and Japan. Moreover, the technology being perfected can be adapted to long-range missiles and to carry nuclear weapons.

This nuclear and missile enhancement strengthens the hand of the North Koreans in any negotiations with the US. And, should the talks flounder, at least North Korea comes away with an enhanced nuclear and missile capability – a de facto Plan B if you like.

North Korea has declared that it wants an agreement with the US by the end of 2019 “or else”. Their missile tests are an example of the “or else”.

Fifth, the North Koreans wanted to signal their unhappiness with the joint US/South Korean military exercises in August.

Thus while the recent US-North Korea talks might appear to represent an unexpected rapprochement between the two governments, if we look past the hyperbole and bloviating, Pyongyang, at least, has firmly demonstrated its capacity to create and maintain an important, and dangerous nuclear and missile capability.

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