Why North Korea’s summit threat may not be a bad thing
Kristian McGuire says if Kim Jong-un’s regime has no intent to give up its nuclear arsenal, or if it wants a more gradual process, then it’s better to find out now than at his meeting with Trump
North Korea’s threat to pull out of a planned summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump has complicated efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Pyongyang’s sudden declaration that it will cancel the meeting if the United States tries to force it into “unilateral nuclear abandonment” is certainly not positive, but it might have a silver lining.
Trump’s decision in March to agree to meet North Korea’s leader spawned two major concerns.
First, experts fear that the US might squander one of its most powerful diplomatic cards by giving the regime the honour of a historic summit with the president without getting something substantial from Pyongyang.
The second, more serious concern is that, if the summit goes badly, the US and North Korea might conclude that diplomacy has hit a dead end, causing tensions to flare.
If Pyongyang truly has no intention of negotiating away its nuclear weapons under terms that could plausibly be acceptable to the US and its allies, then it is doing everyone a favour by revealing this information before the planned meeting. The US is currently in a position to hold onto its summit card and the three American detainees the North released earlier this month, having given nothing away.
The Kim regime’s decision to strike a defiant tone barely a week after releasing the detainees, and with the prized summit still dangling before it, suggests either that the Kim regime isn’t interested in simply stealing a photo op with the US president, as some fear, or that US negotiators are preventing it from doing so.
An optimistic reading of Pyongyang’s tougher line is that it is aimed at extracting concessions from the US, and does not indicate an unyielding opposition to the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation the Trump administration demands of the North.
In recent months, Pyongyang had displayed a cooperative demeanour. It halted testing of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; reached out to the US, South Korea and China; promised to tolerate US-South Korean joint military exercises (which it did until this week); released American detainees; agreed to discuss denuclearisation; and started dismantling its nuclear test site.
After waging his charm offensive against South Korea and China, Kim may have calculated that he is now in position to start reasserting North Korea’s interests.
On the bright side, his goal could be to slow down the denuclearisation process rather than avoid it. North Korea advocates “phased, synchronised measures” to resolve the nuclear issue rather than the quick and complete denuclearisation process promoted by the US.
However, it is quite possible that Pyongyang has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. Its recent tone could be intended to sow discord among Washington, Seoul and Beijing so it can extract as many concessions as possible from all parties while maintaining its nuclear arsenal.
Recent statements by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Trump indicate that a North Korean divide-and-conquer strategy could be at play. Speaking about the North Korea issue shortly after Pyongyang threatened to scuttle the Trump-Kim summit, Wang said “all parties, especially the United States, should cherish this opportunity for peace and should not work as a barrier”. He went on to say that “measures that North Korea has taken to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula should be acknowledged”.
No matter the North’s true intentions, it is probably best that Pyongyang adopted a harder stance before the scheduled summit. If it sincerely wants to negotiate an end to the stand-off over its nuclear weapons, indicating its displeasure with the Trump administration’s denuclearisation plan will allow negotiations to begin in earnest.
On the other hand, if Pyongyang is merely following its old pattern of extorting concessions from whomever it can, its change in posture could help preserve a diplomatic tool that might prove useful should the Kim regime have a change of heart.
Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. [email protected]