Here We Go Again: The Long Dance of US-North Korean relations

Article by David Wilcox

The euphoria of the Singapore Summit of June 12th, 2018 between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has long since passed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has stated that he desires a second summit with President Trump to accelerate the denuclearisation process having promised to allow external inspectors into North Korea to verify the dismantling of key missile and dismantling of the country’s main rector sites (Denyer, September 20th 2018). However, this came with a very important “if”.

This important “if” is that the US takes “corresponding steps” and crucially takes those steps first (Denyer, 20th September 2018: Denyer and Gearan, 19th September 2018). As outline in a previous article, The Trump-Kim Summit: The Promise of a Denuclearised Korean Peninsula or Just a Waste of Time? beneath current negotiations between the US and North Korea there is a crucially significant tension regarding the nature and meaning of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. In the simplest terms, the US views denuclearisation as a unilateral process to be taken by North Korea, whilst North Korea views denuclearisation as a bilateral process involving the US making concessions that will form the basis of a new US-North Korean relationship, quite possibly involving alterations to the US’s relations with South Korea and Japan. Tied into these differing perspectives are undoubtedly judgements about the power relations between the two countries: the unilateral process inevitably perceives the power relations to be asymmetrical whilst the bilateral process inevitably perceives the power relations to be equal.

Here in lies the problem. Here in lies the dance.

In this dance, South Korea’s Moon Jae-In has been an obliging partner to his northern counterpart, reminding both sides that at the June Summit they had made pledges with North Korea promising to move towards complete denuclearization and returning the remains of U.S service personnel whilst the US promised to bring to an end to hostilities that have remained on an armistice basis since 1953,  guaranteeing the security of the North Korean regime and to build a new relationship with North Korea. Crucially Moon declared that all these measures ‘should be taken in a balanced manner…` and that the ‘U.S. should accordingly take corresponding measures…`(Denyer and Min, September 20th 2018).

Talks between the US and North Korea, which have arguably been in a continuous stop-start, up-and-down state for months if not years have reached yet another impasse on who should move next: Washington says it Pyongyang, Pyongyang says its Washington (Denyer and Gearan, 19th September 2018).

The question now stands, who will make the first move whilst the world watches on, like observers at a high-school dance as two individuals stand awkwardly waiting for the one to step forward and ask the other ‘shall we dance?`

When is a concession not a concession and when is progress not progress?

There is a question over whether Kim is actually willing to surrender North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or is merely prepared to reduce that arsenal in exchange for economic concessions and guarantees on the security of the North Korean regime, particularly when it appears that North Korea has increased its production of nuclear fuel (Denyer and Min, September 20th 2018). Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented Trump from declaring Kim’s recent comments as ‘tremendous progress` despite the obvious lack of any commitment (Denyer and Gearan, 19th September 2018).

One of course has to remember that the North Korea-US relationship is not a simple a bilateral relationship but a complex web of interconnecting East Asian relationships including South Korea, Japan and China.  Whilst there has been limited movement of US-North Korea diplomacy apart from talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, there has been significant diplomatic moves in the South-North Korean relationship including: talks between Kim and Moon in Pyongyang and discussions about a Kim visit to Seoul which would be a significant moment as no North Korean leader has ever visited the South Korean capital; an address by South Korea’s Moon at the Mass Games in Pyongyang to an audience of 150,000 North Koreans and a proposed joint bid by the two Koreas for the 2032 Olympic Games (Denyer and Gearan, September 19th 2018).

In my opinion, without a detailed agreement between the US and North Korea on a) what denuclearisation actually means for both sides and b) movement towards that end goal and its connected issues such as an official end to the Korean War of 1950-1953 (arguably the long-term goal of any talks) these small though symbolically important gestures are just that: gestures. What then can break the current impasse and bring the diplomatic dance to a conclusion?

A second summit.

Is a second summit worth it?

Trump’s reaction to Kim’s appeal for another summit has been quite positive, Trump stating in his usual style ‘looks like we’ll have a second summit quite soon` this is despite opposition amongst members of his government that it is premature to hold another summit (Diamond, Mallory and Phillip, September 24th, 2018). South Korea’s Moon Jae-In has declared he believes this summit could take place before the end of 2018 to follow up the successful June summit in Singapore (Zwirz, 26th September 2018)

As stated in a previous article, The Trump-Kim Summit: The Promise of a Denuclearised Korean Peninsula or Just a Waste of Time? 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 further face-to-face summit can both Trump and Kim learn whether both sides are really interested in resolving their respective security concerns.

The first summit was both a bold and daring move that opens the door to the possibility of transforming the conflict on the Korean peninsula` but also was widely seen as disappointing due to the vague nature of the agreement made and the lack of details with Robert Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University stating that the joint text agreed between Kim and Trump ‘even thinner than most sceptics anticipated` (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018: Lyons, Weaver and Hass, June 12th 2018). Given that the first summit didn’t live up to expectation one could ask why bother with a second one, particularly now.

Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, outlined in the Washington Post that Kim’s recent comments demonstrate progress from the first summit in that Kim has outlined his thinking regarding denuclearization and the price for it and whilst the first summit between Kim and Trump produced a broad but general agreement, a second summit could produce more specific outcomes in terms of the timetable for denuclearisation (Denyer and Min, September 20th 2018).

This however runs in the face of the Trump administration’s criticism of the historic attempts by the US to bring about the denuclearisation of North Korea. Pompeo for example state recently that:

We tried to do details, we tried to do step for step, we tried to do trade for trade – each of those failed. We’re coming at this from a different direction. We’re bringing the two senior leaders – the individuals who can actually make the decisions that will move this process forward – bring them together so that we can make progress (Diamond, Mallory and Phillips, September 24th, 2018).

The lack of tangible detailed progress rather than symbolic progress in terms of thinking seems on the surface to be of little concern for the Trump administration or Trump himself (Diamond, Mallory and Phillips, September 24th, 2018). However, for denuclearisation to succeed and relations to be normalised between the US and North Korea there has to be more than symbolic summits in which broad agreements are made but not kept.

In my opinion, it seems clear that both the US and North Korea (and South Korea for that matter) want the process begun at Singapore in June 2018 to continue and for negotiations to continue and relations to improve. Having broken the mould with a first summit there is an opportunity to take the process forward with a second summit in which the details of how what was broadly agreed in Singapore (and what wasn’t dealt with) can be addressed and each side can put their cards on the table, not in terms of rhetoric but actual outcomes. That opportunity should be seized with both hands because of what it enables including an ability to take stock of the previous few months and whether both sides have done what they said they would do. If Singapore was an introduction, the next summit can be where the work really begins. This is of course if it actually happens.

Criticism of the first summit was rightly placed on the lack of details about how denuclearisation would be achieved, which actions would be taken and in what order as well as the overall time for issues such as dismantling of development and production sites for both the nuclear programme and the connected missiles. In this way progress could be measured not on the words being said but the actions taken and against which the US could take steps to support the process as is desired by both the North and South Koreans. What these steps could be has yet to be laid out and this would need to be addressed in the summits. Crucially continued face-to-face summits would support the ability for both North Korea and the US to gain a crucial understanding of each other which would enable them to interpret correctly the actions that the other has taken and would help change the nature of the relationship between the two states from one of confrontation and enmity towards that of cooperation.

But what is most important, I believe, is that a second summit brings about an agreement over the route ahead. We need a road map to be set out. The Singapore summit set down the end goals for both parties but there was no conclusion on the route that should be taken to get there and that is what must now be agreed to help break the cycle of fits and starts that has dominated the negotiations for years and bringing this long dance to a conclusion and prevent the international community from having to endlessly say ‘here we go again`.

Bibliography

Diamond, Jeremy., Mallory Allie, Phillip, Abby, CNN Politics (September 24th 2018) , ‘Trump says second meeting with North Korea’s Kim could be ‘quite soon`, available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/24/politics/donald-trump-united-nations-north-korea-meeting/index.html (Accessed on 26th September 2018).

Denyer, Simon, The Washington Post (September 20th 2018), ‘North Korea’s Kim wants new summit with Trump soon to continue denuclearization` available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-koreas-kim-wants-new-summit-with-trump-soon-to-continue-denuclearization/2018/09/20/a4a33fbe-bcbd-11e8-8792-78719177250f_story.html?utm_term=.392b464bd9d2 (Accessed on 24th September 2018).

Denyer, Simon and Gearan, Anne, The Washington Post (September 19th 2018), ‘North Korea leader offers to dismantle nuclear test sit – but only after U.S. acts`https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-korea-leader-offers-to-dismantle-nuclear-test-site–but-only-after-us-acts/2018/09/19/cbdd6a60-bb77-11e8-a8aa-860695e7f3fc_story.html?utm_term=.a15530f0207c (Accessed on 24th September 2018)

Denyer, Simon and Min Joo Kim, The Washington Post (September 20th 2018), ‘North Korea’s Kim wants new summit with Trump soon to continue denuclearization`, available at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-koreas-kim-wants-new-summit-with-trump-soon-to-continue-denuclearization/2018/09/20/a4a33fbe-bcbd-11e8-8792-78719177250f_story.html?utm_term=.392b464bd9d2 (Accessed on 24th September 2018).

Lyons Kate, Weaver Matthew and Hass, Benjamin, The Guardian (June 12th 2018), ‘Singapore summit: what we learned from the Trump-Kim meeting`, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/12/singapore-meeting-what-we-know-so-far (Accessed on 24th September 2018).

Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Holmes, Marcus, The Conversation (March 13th 2018), ‘Lessons for Trump-Kim summit from Reagan and Gorbachev: trust and reassurance before denuclearisation`, available at: https://theconversation.com/lessons-for-trump-kim-summit-from-reagan-and-gorbachev-trust-and-reassurance-before-denuclearisation-93250 (Accessed on 24th September 2018).

Zwirz, Elisabeth, Fox News (26th September 2018), ‘Trump could meet with Kim Jong Un by year’s end, South Korean president tells Fox News`, available at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2018/09/25/trump-could-meet-with-kim-jong-un-by-years-end-south-korean-president-tells-fox-news.html (Accessed on 26th September 2018).

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