By Robert R. King
The Hanoi Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended abruptly in a disappointing failure in February of this year. During a brief, hastily prepared meeting, the two leaders, joined this time by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, met again briefly in June at Panmunjom on the North-South border along the 38th Parallel during Trump’s visit to South Korea.
The surprise meeting resulted from a tweet from the American President to the North Korean leader (and the rest of the Trump Tweetosphere) saying that he would be in the neighborhood and suggesting, “if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”
Kim and Trump chatted briefly, and the two took a few steps together into North Korea, then crossed the border and walked together into South Korea. This gave Trump the right to claim, accurately, to be the first sitting U.S. President to set foot in North Korea. (Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were both former U.S. presidents when they visited the North.)
Following their brief walk, the two joined South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the three leaders met for just less than an hour in “Freedom House” on the South Korean side of the border village. During that meeting Trump and Kim agreed that the two countries would hold working-level talks. During the meeting, Kim reportedly suggested that mystical forces were at work: “I believe that [my] excellent relationship with his excellency [Trump] will act as a mysterious power that overcomes obstacles and difficulties that will come to the tasks that need to be done.”
Working-Level Talks in Stockholm
At the conclusion of the meeting President Trump told the media that Steve Biegun, Special Representative for North Korea Policy, would head the U.S. team, and that other appropriate U.S. officials had already been identified to participate. The implication of the President’s comment was that the U.S. was prepared and anxious to resume discussions quickly.
It was clear that working-level efforts had not identified the path forward before the two unprepared leaders sat down together at Hanoi in February. Trump and Kim both were clearly upset and frustrated with their highly visible failure, and both were interested to avoid the same problem again. It seems that the “mysterious power that overcomes obstacles” was not working well in Hanoi.
Despite Trump’s desire to move forward quickly, the effort to set up working-level talks moved slowly. It took over three months from the time of the meeting at the DMZ before the working-level meetings finally took place in Stockholm on October 5. The principal cause for the delay in setting up the meetings appears to have been the North Koreans.
The Swedish capital has been the venue for working-level and other more informal discussions involving North Korea. Representatives of Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia comprise the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission which was established to monitor the armistice agreement that ended fighting in the Korean War in 1953. Also, the Swedes currently have an agreement with the State Department to represent U.S. citizen interests in North Korea, since the United States has no diplomatic representation in Pyongyang.
The working-level talks ended Saturday evening October 5, and in a public statement in Stockholm prior to departing for North Korea, North Korean lead negotiator in Stockholm, Kim Myong-gil, gave a very bleak assessment of the conversations. He described the talks as “very bad and sickening.” He told reporters, “Whether or not there are further talks will depend on the U.S. . . . Whether there will be any shocking actions that nobody would expect to see if the U.S. is not ready, nobody knows. Let’s wait and see.”
That last phrase Kim Myong-gil used, “Let’s wait and see,” is identical in meaning to President Trump’s favorite phrase: “We’ll see what happens.” In a brilliant analysis of the President’s favorite phrase, journalist Chris Chillizza cleverly sums its meaning: “Which means what, exactly? Exactly.”
The Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang issued a statement which doubled down on the North Korean representative’s grim assessment. This Ministry statement accused the U.S. of trying to mislead the public and “spreading a completely ungrounded story that both sides are open to meet” again. The Stockholm talks “made us think they have no political will to improve [North Korea]-U.S. relations and may be abusing the bilateral relations for their own partisan interests.”
The U.S. State Department press comment was somewhat defensive but much more upbeat. It was released after the North Korean statement was published. “The early comments from the DPRK delegation do not reflect the content or the spirit of today’s 8½ hour discussion. The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts.” The U.S. thanked the Swedes for hosting, and accepted a Swedish invitation to continue discussions in Stockholm in two weeks. The bombastic blast from the North Koreans, however, clearly indicated that they were not ready to accept the Swedish invitation to resume discussions in Stockholm.
It is difficult to tell for certain from a distance what might be happening. First, it seems clear that the United States is far more interested in continuing the discussions than are the North Koreans. It is likely that the United States is pressing for more in terms of denuclearization than the North is willing to consider. The North is willing to take small steps on the nuclear and missile front, but the United States is not willing to lift sanctions as quickly and completely as the North would like. The North wants all sanctions lifted immediately, but the U.S. wants denuclearization to proceed slowly. The only effective sanctions are those imposed by the UN Security Council, and the discipline and the political consensus to reduce sanctions gradually and in unison is not certain.
North Korea Continues Missile Testing
The North Koreans are playing their hand well. Kim Jong-un continues with missile tests, but he is not testing long-range ICBMs which can reach the continental United States. Testing shorter range missiles gets a shrug and a nod from Trump, although these shorter-range missiles do threaten U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. The Japanese Prime Minister has publicly expressed his concern, and indicated that the medium range missiles violate UN Security Council resolutions. The recent underwater launches, which appear intended for submarines, do represent a threat to the United States as well as other countries.
Trump apparently believes that his personal relationship with Kim will motivate the North Korean leader to make the right decisions. This is an August 2 tweet, which was sent out shortly after the North had launched a number of missiles within a few weeks of the hand-in-hand walk in the DMZ:
Kim Jong Un and North Korea tested 3 short range missiles over the last number of days. These missiles are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there a discussion of short range missiles when we shook hands. There may be a United Nations violation, but . . . . .
. . . . . Chairman Kim does not want to disappoint me with a violation of trust, there is far too much for North Korea to gain – the potential as a Country, under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, is unlimited. Also, there is far too much to lose. I may be wrong, but I believe that . . . . .
. . . . . Chairman Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his county, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump Aug 2, 2019
With Trump giving Kim the benefit of the doubt, the North is improving its missile capabilities. These missiles are a potential threat to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, and these shorter-range missiles can also reach Okinawa, which has an important U.S. military presence. Furthermore, information gleaned from shorter range missiles can be used to improve longer range missiles. Because Trump minimizes the significance of these missile tests, the North believes he is more anxious for meetings than they are.
North Koreans seem to be parochial in their analysis of the United States. They see North Korean issues as higher in the list of U.S. interests than they are. North Korea is important, but is one of many important issues. For North Korea the United States is a much higher priority. It is quite possible that they see the firing of National Security Advisor John Bolton as directly related to their disdain for him. Bolton’s push for the “Libya Model” for the denuclearization of North Korea was certainly not welcomed in Pyongyang. They may well have seen his departure as related to their dislike of Bolton’s hard line policy, and they may well have interpreted it as an indication that Trump was becoming even more accommodating to their interests.
Presidential Election, Impeachment, and North Korea
One phrase in the North Korean Foreign Ministry comments about the lack of progress in the Stockholm meetings suggests another insight into North Korean thinking. The Foreign Ministry statement states, the United States is “abusing the bilateral relations for their own partisan interests.” One of the themes Trump will certainly portray in his reelection campaign is his foreign policy brilliance. He is the first sitting U.S. president to meet the North Korean leader, and this may have made the North think that he sees North Korea policy as foreign policy triumph that will help his reelection. Some in North Korea may think that if the North plays “hard to get,” Trump will be forced to make greater concessions to North Korea in order to maintain his good record with North Korea.
What the North Koreans do not understand, however, is that as Trump becomes increasingly focused on reelection, foreign policy may become less important. Traditionally foreign policy has not been a key issue that has decided presidential elections, although in 2020 it could well become more important, not because Trump has done so well in foreign policy, but because his foreign policy has been so controversial.
One of the first occasions when Republicans have been willing to come out against the President is on Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Northern Syria, where they supported Kurdish troops fighting against ISIS and the Syrian government of Hafez el Assad. A resolution critical of the President’s actions in Syria was adopted by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Congress. In the House of Representatives the vote was 354 to 60, and that certainly made the President take notice. Even some of his strongest allies—Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Liz Cheney—have spoke out in opposition to his Syria decision.
The looming impeachment has already caused Trump to focus increasingly on his personal situation vis-à-vis the House and Senate. He has never been good about delegating or multitasking. As impeachment has picked up steam, the President has been increasingly preoccupied. Since he is so directly and personally involved in North Korea policy, it is difficult to see how he will find time and energy to deal with an increasingly difficult Kim Jong-un, who mistakenly thinks that making progress with Pyongyang is important to Trump’s reelection.
In their criticism of the United States following the Stockholm talks, the North Koreans gave President Trump a year-end deadline to reach an agreement. The Foreign Ministry statement on the failed working-level talks included this warning: “As we have clearly identified the way for solving [the] problem, the fate of the future DPRK-U.S. dialogue depends on the U.S. attitude, and the end of this year is its deadline.” In other words, capitulate and do what we want, or there will be no resolution of the issue. The prospect for progress with North Korea is not good.
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.
Photo from Pedro Szekely’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.