Article by David Wilcox
The forthcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on June 12th, 2018 has led to hopes that Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s offer for a face-to-face summit is ‘a bold and daring move that opens the door to the possibility of transforming the conflict on the Korean peninsula` (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018).
As with many high-profile summits, there are high expectations and high probability that the summit may not meet those expectations. The acceptance by Trump of Kim’s offer for a face-to-face summit could well be seen as a mistake. Trump may well have walked into a ‘carefully laid trap` in which North Korea can come out with the benefit of a significant concession, namely that the US agreed to the summit in the first place. By agreeing to the summit, Trump has in effect provided legitimacy for the North Korea regime by recognising it as an equal and offering the opportunity for diplomatic normalisation to take place.
Trump’s approach is thus radically different to the approach taken by his predecessors in office, George W Bush (a fellow Republican) and Barak Obama, ‘who saw a summit as a reward that had to be earned by the North Koreans after they had taken concrete and verifiable steps towards nuclear disarmament`. Trump has not seen a summit in those terms nor has he forced the North Koreans to establish ‘concrete and verifiable steps` toward nuclear disarmament in order to gain a face-to-face summit (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018). In fact, Trump could walk away with nothing to show for it whilst Kim is able to work away with awareness that North Korea has finally succeeded in bringing the US to the table on its own terms rather than Washington’s (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th 2018). Kim has already secured what the North Korean regime has desired since 1953, namely to be seen as an equal to the US and Kim ‘need concede nothing to still come out as a winner` (Wolffe, 9th March 2018).
However, given that previous approaches by both Bush and Obama clearly failed to bring about any meaningful exploration of the issues on the Korean Peninsula, it is possible, in my opinion, that Trump’s decision may at least break the ice and produce an atmosphere conducive to the exploration of the issue of ‘denuclearisation`.
The Meaning of Denuclearisation
The denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula means very different things for the US and North Korea, which bring into question how successful the summit is likely to be if the objective is a denuclearised North Korea.
Whether one wants to accept it or not, the possession of nuclear weapons provides an important security role for the North Korean regime, ensuring its survival against any US attempt to change the regime. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, both leaders who decided to denuclearise their respective nations, Iraq and Libya, demonstrates that regimes who are concerned about their survival are not protected from regime change (Wheeler and Homes, March 13th, 2018). Indeed the North Koreans have in the past argued that Libya could have avoided military intervention in 2011 if it had retained its nuclear weapons programmes (BBC, May 16th 2018).
Thus for North Korea, nuclear weapons are seen as an essential part of its survival and it had made clear in recent days that it may abandon the June 12th Summit if the US continues to press for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme unilaterally, presumably without any concessions by the US and South Korea (BBC, May 16th 2018).
At the April 27th, 2018 Summit, Kim Jung-un and Moon Jae-in agreed a joint declaration towards ‘complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula`. The phasing here is crucial as it potentially indicates the idea of mutual arms reductions on the peninsula rather than unilateral denuclearisation (Fifield, 16th May 2018). The question then is whether this is something the US is willing to consider and whether it or South Korea are willing to pay just a price for a denuclearised Korean peninsula.
In my opinion, given that North Korea’s primary focus is its own security and survival, it will only agree to denuclearise (assuming that it is prepared to this objective, which is debatable), if there is a significant shift in the US’s presence and promises to South Korea in which the threat of regime change originating on its borders was minimised. However as North Korea has interpreted from the Iraq and Libyan case studies, this doesn’t guarantee protection from US-led regime change in the future, something that nuclear weapons is seen as an answer to.
Saying that, there is a substantial difference between Iraq and Libya and North Korea’s situation. That is the presence of a nuclear-armed ally on its northern border, the People’s Republic of China, who has historically intervened to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime before, namely during the 1950-1953 Korean War to prevent the presence of the US or a US ally on its southern border after the UN crossed the 8th parallel (Best, 2015, p. 278). Of course, there is no guarantee of China’s continued role as a guarantor of North Korea’s security, but it does, I believe provided space for wider discussions on how to alleviate North Korea’s security concerns whilst encouraging it to move away from a nuclear deterrent. Whether the North Koreans are open to giving up nuclear weapons however remains to be seen.
The Summit In Crisis: Bad Intentions
Both the US and North Korea have an active and historic distrust of the other’s intentions which crucially needs to be overcome (Wheeler, 29th April 2018). During previous rounds of negotiations between the US and North Korea, both sides have developed a perception that neither will honour their promises due to previous failures to fulfil or be seen to fulfil agreements (Wheeler, 29th April 2018).
The fragility of the relationship between the US and North Korea, has been clearly demonstrated in recent days. North Korea has reacted sharply to comments made by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who stated that North Korea could follow a Libyan model of denuclearisation, namely receiving economic aid and diplomatic normalisation only after its denuclearisation had been verified. These comments have been taken by North Korea as an indication of the US designs on regime change once North Korea has denuclearised (BBC, 16th May 2018).
In addition to this, North Korea cancelled its scheduled summit with South Korea on May 16th 2018, which was a follow up to the historic summit of April 27th 2018 between North Korea’s Kim Jung-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, due to joint military drills – known as Max Thunder – between the US and South Korea. These drills were seen by North Korea as a ‘provocation` and potential preparation for a future invasion whilst the US and South Korea argue they are purely defensive in nature (BBC, 15th May 2018). The Max Thunder drills are an annual joint military exercise held since 2008 in which US and South Korean fighter aircraft practice ‘air-to-air combat` and though they are seen as routine by the US and South Korea, North Korea has regularly criticised these drills (Fifield, 16th May 2018).
Though this is a traditional North Korean diplomatic strategy: to ‘raise the stakes` during negotiations by threatening to abandon talks if it doesn’t receive what it desires, one can argue that from the North Korean perspective, it has entered the lead up to the Summit by making a number of concessions, arguably designed to show its peaceful intent, whilst the otherside has not (Fifield, May 16th 2018; BBC, 16th May 2018). On April 21st, 2018, North Korea announced it would be suspending not only nuclear tests but also the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles which was recognised by the US and South Korea as helping to ‘contribute to creating a very positive environment` for both the North-South Korea Summit and US-North Korean Summit (BBC, 21st April 2018).
Between February 12th and November 29th, 2017, North Korea conducted five separate missile launches, all with ever increasing range (BBC, 21st April 2018). As was outlined in the previous article, The Madman Theory, it was these missile launches which provoked a rising in tensions with the US as well as with South Korea and Japan.
In addition, North Korea released Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul, three US citizens being held in prison by North Korea. Hak-song had been arrested in May 2017 for ‘hostile activities` whilst, Kim in April 2017 on espionage charges and Dong-chul in 2015 on spying charges. These releases were recognised by both the US and South Korea as a positive step (BBC, 9th May 2018).
Alongside this North Korea declared it would dismantle its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, due to take place between the 23rd-25th May 2018, two weeks before the forthcoming 12th June Summit, involving collapsing the site’s tunnels with explosives, sealing of its entrances and removing all facilities including those connected to nuclear research. This is important given that the site was used for all of North Korea’s six nuclear tests and serves as the country’s only known nuclear test site (Murphy, 14th May 2018: Haas, 15th May 2018). Evidence from satellite photos taken on 7th May 2018, indicate that this dismantling has already begun, demonstrating its declared view that the test site is no longer necessary though there are reports that the site has in fact collapsed and is no longer useable (Haas, 15th May 2018). In comparison the US has continued its military drills with South Korea, which brings into question the ‘sincerity` of the US to the forthcoming summit whilst comments by National Security Advisor Bolton have certain inflamed North Korea’s suspicious and fury (Fifield, 16th May 2018: BBC, 16th May 2018).
In my opinion, it is vital for the US to take steps to communicate its peaceful intent towards North Korea in order to take advantage of this apparent window of opportunity. These can be symbolic in nature or easily reversible such as the postponement of any forthcoming military drills and undoubtedly requires the US reins in its rhetoric from its National Security Advisors and far more refined language from Trump himself. Whether this is possible or not is debatable but nevertheless the US needs to try and demonstrate its seriousness given that the North Koreans, arguable, are trying to show theirs (potentially).
More than Just an Agreement
Though it would be incredible for a single US-North Korean Summit to resolve the issue of the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the permeant alteration of the conflict relationship between the US, North Korea and its neighbours, South Korea and Japan, this is unlikely to be the outcome. What the summit could achieve however is the opening up of further summits between the two state leaders through the establishment of a positive and personal chemistry between Trump and Kim in which ‘each leader recognised that the only security between their two countries was mutual security` which could well be a ‘game changer` in terms of opening the way for sustained de-escalation (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018).
In my opinion, the success of the June Summit in Singapore should be judged not on what is agreed or not agreed but on whether it leads to another summit or not. It should be judged as Wheeler and Holmes rightly argue, by ‘how far it promotes reassurance between the two leaders that each is committed to achieving a de-escalation of the conflict that recognises the other has legitimate security concerns` (Wheeler and Homes, March 13th, 2018). Only through a face-to-face summit can both Trump and Kim learn whether both sides are really interested in resolving their respective security concerns and so every effort needs to be made to secure this first summit so that hopefully, it builds enough confidence for further summits.
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