By Robert R. King
With the holidays over, the partial U.S. government shutdown in full swing, and the Democrats taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives with considerable media fanfare, the Oval Office is looking to shift public attention. Thus, it comes as no surprise that representatives of the United States and North Korea are meeting to discuss a venue and agenda for a second Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit.
The President told reporters Sunday January 6 that “We are negotiating a location” for the summit, and a South Korean newspaper reported that American and North Korean representatives were huddling in Hanoi to work it out. The fact that the meetings were reportedly taking place in Hanoi suggests that Vietnam is the most likely venue for a meeting. Vietnam has diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, which is an important consideration in site selection.
The location, however, is one of the least important considerations. The real issue is whether a second summit will lead to significant progress on the denuclearization of North Korea and the reduction of tension in Northeast Asia?
Talks at an Impasse
Korea policy mavens were skeptical of the first summit between President Trump and leader Kim in Singapore in June 2018. Andrei Lankov, professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and a highly regarded observer of the DPRK, called the summit “the Singapore embarrassment.” He concluded that “the Singapore summit could be considered one of the most impressive failures of the U.S. diplomacy in recent years.”
The summit in Singapore involved little preparation or advanced negotiation to shape the outcome. The President was largely interested in the meeting for its publicity value, and he got that. Kim Jong-un wanted the summit to enhance his international stature, but he was not interested in making serious efforts toward denuclearization, and he got both of his wishes. A summit with the key “deliverable” being yet another series of photos with the leaders standing before a backdrop of fluttering flags in Hanoi will hardly be seen as successful diplomacy.
For American diplomats, the problem is that denuclearization is the principal goal, but North Korea is anxious to maintain its nuclear and missile capabilities. The U.S. policy now is focused primarily on tough sanctions to limit Pyongyang’s ability to maintain or enhance its military capacity, but Washington has not yet come up with incentives to motivate proactive action by the North.
North Korea is happy with the status quo since it has nuclear technology, and it is quietly continuing to expand its nuclear and missile stockpiles. In the meantime, Pyongyang is working to improve relations with its neighbors in an effort to undermine United States influence in Northeast Asia.
Pyongyang’s Regional Engagements to Bypass Washington
Relations between North and South Korea are moving forward—in the last year three summits have taken place between leaders of the North and South and a fourth summit is expected in Seoul soon. Rail links have been reestablished between South and North, a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics is in the works, border fortifications have been taken down, the South’s joint military exercises with the U.S. have been scaled back. Thus far Seoul has been cautious and has consulted with Washington as it has expanded links with the North. President Moon Jae-in has been a major force in moving the relationship forward, but he has maintained contact with President Trump kept the U.S. informed.
At the same time, North Korea has also made major strides in improving its relationship with China. For the first five years after he came to power in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un did not meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This week, Kim is in Beijing for his fourth summit in less than a year with President Xi. Beijing is key to UN-imposed nuclear and missile sanctions on the North because China is the North’s largest trade partner and provides the largest share of DPRK imports of food and energy. As the China-North Korea relationship strengthens, Chinese support for the UN sanctions and could weaken.
American policy is to continue UN economic sanctions to force North Korea to denuclearize. U.S. banking sanctions against the North have had some success in keeping other nations “in line” on DPRK sanctions, but there is little trade or other economic relations between the U.S. and the North, which means unilateral U.S. economic sanctions are of limited effect. Thus, America’s principal tool to secure denuclearization largely depends on the effort of others, and North Korea is trying to improve relations with those key countries.
U.S. Humanitarian Assistance as an Opportunity
Humanitarian assistance for North Korea from the United States, however, could play an important role in showing American concern for the North. Providing aid could be an opportunity for improving the strained relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, and it will allow the U.S. to make a positive first step without weakening the denuclearization effort.
Under the Trump administration, U.S. sanctions policy has focused on severely limiting imports and reducing North Korean exports in order to choke off resources for nuclear and missile programs. Sanctions have also been interpreted and enforced to reduce humanitarian assistance to the North. This has meant severe reductions in aid provided by American non-governmental organizations that are largely funded by private donors. The sanctions legislation and regulations, in fact, do allow for the provision of humanitarian aid, but the Trump administration has narrowly interpreted sanctions to prevent private American aid organizations from invoking the humanitarian exception.
International organizations have assessed that there is an urgent need for food assistance in North Korea, particularly for young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. International experts have also identified an urgent need for medicines and medical aid, particularly for dealing with tuberculosis and malaria.
It is difficult to see how U.S. sanctions which are stopping medicines against multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) or preventing the provision of food for nutrition-deprived young school children will pressure the North to give up nuclear weapons. This is not a case of forcing North Korea to use scarce resources for medical aid or food for deprived children in rural areas, which otherwise would be spent on the military. The repressive regime simply does not provide medicines or food for its poor citizens, even if it is urgently needed and not otherwise available.
Lifting poorly-applied sanctions on providing humanitarian aid for North Koreans has the benefit of allowing the United States to do something visibly to benefit the North. This would show that America is interested in the wellbeing of the North, and it benefits the regime. Then as we seek to move on to negotiations on the much more difficult issues of denuclearization and the future U.S. role on the Korean Peninsula, the humanitarian assistance we encourage will create a better atmosphere for progress on these more difficult issues.
Hopeful Signs of U.S. Policy Shift
There have been positive signs that the Administration may be changing its position to-date on sanctions. In October the Trump administration had prevented American humanitarian aid workers from going to North Korea according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But in the last couple of weeks, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Steve Biegun told reporters that “I’ll be sitting down with American aid groups early in the new year to discuss how we can better ensure the delivery of appropriate assistance, particularly through the course of the coming winter.” He also indicated that the United States will engage with UN humanitarian agencies to review how aid exemptions are granted. Hopefully, this will result in American support for UN humanitarian activities in the North.
Working with UN agencies on exemptions is important because of the role the U.S. plays in humanitarian efforts in the UN. The U.S. has been a major funder of UN humanitarian programs, some of which have aided North Korea, and it is important for the U.S. to support and encourage such as efforts through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which has suspended aid to fight tuberculosis and malaria in the North. UNICEF has been an important source of aid targeting young children in North Korea, and that program benefits from U.S. funding, which hopefully will increase.
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) – ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia, The Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy – recently called for the Trump Administration to allow American aid workers to travel to North Korea and to provide much need humanitarian medical aid and food. In a letter, the Senator said “The humanitarian situation in North Korea is far too dire for these draconian policies.” And in the broader context, he said that American interests “are best served when our moral and global leadership are in lockstep.” The Senator said that addressing the grave security challenge in North Korea can be helped by trying to mitigate the North’s longstanding humanitarian crisis.
Providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance to North Korea is the morally right thing to do, but it also makes political sense.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Picture from EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations flickr page