The trade war between Washington and Beijing could ultimately lead to a two-way negotiation of the rules of the global economic game.
While Kim Jong Un left Pyongyang for Hanoi, the site of his second meeting with Donald Trump, on Feb. 24, a number of questions remained regarding what will be discussed at the Feb. 27-28 summit as well as the possible concessions of each protagonist. The American president’s hyperbolic declarations concerning his privileged relationship with his North Korean homologue nonetheless set the tone. The summit will be a success!*
Contradictory Goals and a Need to Lean on One Another
Neither Washington nor Pyongyang agrees on the content and steps of the denuclearization process. Washington understands it to be the definitive elimination of all nuclear arms and nuclear components, as well as the dismantling of all related sites and the implementation of a robust verification system. Pyongyang sees it as a gradual, local process that involves the withdrawal of the entire American nuclear arms system from the Korean peninsula, including all troops currently stationed there. Furthermore, this step-by-step approach assumes that the sanctions on North Korea will be lifted as a response to the country’s “efforts.”
Nevertheless, the two leaders should take it easy, because they must worry about political forces at home and need to reinforce their stature as political men by leaning on one another. With the next American presidential election coming up next year, Trump is already campaigning. He needs to make a strong impression and believes that these North Korean summits can give him that opportunity, even though Congress seems prepared to limit his potential overtures. North Korea is also a possible galvanizing force in the trade war that Trump is waging with China.
Back in North Korea, Kim Jong Un has to prove his ability to manage relations with the United States while protecting his country’s interests. His political base is not as solid as one might expect. His regime is having trouble implementing the economic reform that it promised. The easing of sanctions is his priority.
Persistent Gray Areas
Even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been to Pyongyang several times in the past year, little is known about these meetings. This discretion has substantiated the impression that no progress was made on the complex question of denuclearization and that Pyongyang refused to answer American requests to clarify the state of its nuclear program.
In July 2018, two months after the Singapore summit, an article in The Washington Post revived speculations about the North Korean regime’s duplicity by citing reports from American intelligence agencies accusing Pyongyang of building new intercontinental missiles. Satellite images allowed reporters to conclude that North Korea was working on at least one intercontinental missile. This missile, the Hwasong-15, with an estimated range of 13,000 kilometers, is capable of reaching the East Coast of the United States. In July 2018, Mike Pompeo admitted at a congressional hearing that North Korea was continuing to produce nuclear materials.
Finally, China’s ambiguous attitude toward these sanctions persists. The resumption of freight truck activity between the Chinese city of Dandong and the North Korean border in 2018 shows that Beijing, not wanting to see the North Korean regime collapse, is now only partially adhering to the rationale of the sanctions.
Since the Singapore summit, both Beijing and Russia have called for an easing of these sanctions at the United Nations Security Council as a positive response to North Korea’s suspension of missile launches. The two countries are thus calling for a necessary reciprocity in the diplomatic treatment of North Korea, as well as a gradual, step-by-step approach.
The North Korean Cards
In his 2019 New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un laid out a road map for future U.S.-North Korea relations, evoking a “new way” if the United States maintains its sanctions and pressures on his regime, even in the case of Trump’s removal from office, as is the case with the Iran Deal.
The North Korean leader confirmed that his country “would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them” and asked the United States to undertake “trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions.” Among North Korea’s requests are, not surprisingly, the end of major U.S.-South Korean military training exercises, the implementation of a peace mechanism that would replace the armistice and the withdrawal of sanctions.
For the moment, Kim Jong Un appears in a powerful position because he has several options. He can keep his nuclear arms or choose to “freeze” his program without dismantling it. He can count on support from China and Russia. The two countries have already announced that they are in favor of easing the sanctions. Finally, he knows that the South Korean president is ready to begin active economic collaboration.
The resumption of relations between the North and the South has already allowed for the reactivation of a certain number of engagements at the heart of the Sunshine Policy, an open policy of South Korea toward North Korea that began in the early 2000s. It permits sporting exchanges, the reunion of separated families, humanitarian aid, the reconnection of railroads and economic cooperation. An important military component was added with the establishment of confidence-building measures (mine clearing in the demilitarized zone, dialogue between soldiers). An inter-Korean liaison office was also opened in Kaesong in September 2018.
On the American Side, A Search for Compromise
Steven Biegun’s speech at Stanford University on Jan. 31, 2019, gave both sides the opportunity to clarify their expectations. The American envoy to North Korea notably revisited the process of U.S.-North Korea negotiations, referencing “parallel and simultaneous action” for both parties. He also discussed the topic of experts having access to North Korean nuclear and ballistic facilities, as well as the installation of surveillance mechanisms on those sites.
Among the Hanoi summit’s possible initiatives are gestures such as the opening of an American liaison office in Pyongyang and even a formal declaration ending the war between the two countries, which already came up at the Singapore summit. Pyongyang could also promise not to develop any more nuclear weapons and to dismantle its plant in Yongbyon.
As far as incentive measures are concerned, the resumption of inter-Korean economic projects figures prominently. The South Korean president is actively pushing for the reopening of the industrial complex in Kaesong and the tourist site at Mount Kumgang and has already begun preparations.
The main unknown is still Washington’s position on the question that has, up until now, blocked negotiations: North Korea’s “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization, an unacceptable prospect for Pyongyang.
It should be noted that, since the end of 2018, Washington has softened its position on another of its demands: that North Korea is to provide an inventory of its nuclear arsenal, its location and a list of its missile launching sites. Pyongyang has refused up until now, citing security concerns.
The choice of Vietnam as a setting for the second U.S.-North Korea summit appears, in many ways, symbolic. Enemies yesterday, the United States and Vietnam have reconciled and begun fruitful economic and political relations. Furthermore, Vietnam’s reunification is often cited as a realistic model of development for North Korea.
The Hanoi regime has been able to implement necessary economic reforms known as Doi Moi. It has been able to open itself up to the world while maintaining ideological control over its population. Is this the path laid out for North Korea?
*Editor’s note: The Hanoi summit was cut short on Feb. 28 without an agreement.