By Stephan Haggard
Speculation about a pre-election surprise on North Korea has been bubbling to the surface in Washington, suggested by John Bolton no less. Not surprisingly, President Moon—with his fresh electoral mandate—has also been pushing a Kim-Trump summit. Now Kim Yo Jong has offered up her own reflection on the current state of diplomatic play.
The meandering, “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” statement has been taken as a firm rejection of another summit, or even working-level talks, and contained the usual veiled threats. Yet the statement also sought to protect the personal relationship between Kim and Trump, teased that denuclearization was not impossible and aimed above all to entice the administration into a new offer. As such, it could be interpreted as an effort to calm the waters rather than a signal of looming escalation.
What did Kim Yo Jong actually say? Kim does not state definitively that talks are impossible; that will depend on “the judgment and decision between the two leaders.” But the statement does adopt the standard bargaining tactic of explaining why Pyongyang is not anxious to deal; that the U.S.—and the president–need an agreement more than North Korea does and that another photo op would be a waste of time.
The fundamental reason for Kim Yo Jong’s caution goes back to the embarrassing failure in Hanoi, described in some detail in Chapter 11 of John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened. Ironically, the accounts by Bolton and Kim—if not their interpretations—align quite closely. Kim Yo Jong portrays the North as bringing a serious offer to the table in Hanoi, one that would have involved real concessions: trading some (ill-defined) movement on Yongbyon for relief from the most significant multilateral sanctions imposed through the Security Council since 2016. Bolton portrays Kim as clearly distressed by the fact that this offer was so roundly rejected, and Kim Yo Jong’s text hints at the embarrassment of Hanoi as well.
She argues, however, that during the “handshake” summit, Kim Jong-un warned President Trump that he would not revisit the Hanoi offer. Indeed, Kim Yo Jong suggests that the entire “action for action” framework, which North Korea has often advanced, is over before it ever really began. North Korea is at the present unwilling to trade partial moves on the nuclear front for sanctions relief. Rather, she argues that the parties should shift from such incrementalism to “a formula of ‘withdrawal of hostility versus resumption of negotiations.’”
Kim Yo Jong goes even further, however, suggesting that sanctions relief is not even a central objective of the Kim Jong-un regime. There are several possible reasons for such a bold claim, starting with the effort to show resolve and underline the capacity of the regime to withstand outside pressure. Under this interpretation, simply seeking sanctions relief—as in Hanoi—could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
Yet an equally plausible interpretation is that Hanoi demonstrated the low likelihood of securing such a trade with the United States, particularly given disagreements within the administration on how to proceed. Why chase something you are unlikely to get?
What about the possibility that Kim Yo Jong is signaling her own pre-electoral surprise? A section of the speech addresses possible U.S. concerns that it will receive the “Christmas present” provocation that was promised—but not delivered—at the end of 2019. However, Kim Yo Jong goes to some pains to say that North Korea has no such intentions unless provoked. Rather she says that North Korea has not the “slightest intention to pose a threat to the U.S.,” that Kim Jong Un has assured President Trump on this score, and that “everything will go smoothly if they leave us alone and make no provocation on us [sic].”
The shadow boxing between the United States and North Korea often centers on efforts to put the ball in the other player’s court: to shift the onus for action. As with the long history of peace agreement and peace regime proposals, North Korea is doing that here. Yet Kim Yo Jong’s statement suggests that the parties probably view one another in surprisingly similar ways. Kim Jong-un sees little return for rushing into talks that are unlikely to yield any benefits, and is in any case unwilling to make concessions. And in the United States, it is not just John Bolton who sees little likelihood that North Korea will make meaningful offers. Where is the “win” for the president? The main message I see in Kim Yo Jong’s speech is that North Korea is playing out the clock; it will either resume the dance if Trump prevails or take its chances with a Biden administration.
Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.