How Kim Jong-un is schooling Donald Trump in the art of the phantom deal
Pyongyang is breaking a promise to ‘denuclearise’ by luring the US to the bargaining table for concessions while continuing nuclear activities, Edward Howell writes
News that North Korea may be enhancing its nuclear capabilities comes as no surprise. Yet the implications for regional alliance dynamics reveal the tragedy of great power politics, to use the phrase of acclaimed international relations scholar John Mearsheimer.
Kim Jong-un’s third Beijing visit, coming one week after his “historic” summit with US President Donald Trump, contained no great revelations.
Designed to allow the North Korean leader to debrief China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Kim’s meeting with Trump, it reaffirmed what Kim termed in his first visit to Beijing as the “preciousness of the DPRK-PRC friendship”.
Yet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his third visit to Pyongyang last week. In May, after Trump announced he was cancelling the summit with Kim, the secretary commented that a sanctions programme remained in place and that the US-North Korea tensions were at “situation normal”, referring to the US campaign of “maximum pressure” aimed at forcing North Korea to rein in its nuclear weapons programme.
Like the outcome of the recent Kim-Trump summit, however, this term is fraught with ambiguity. If “normal” means maintaining a policy of deterrence and the status quo beneath the frenzy of summit diplomacy, then the US can say it has been broadly successful. If normal means making visible progress towards getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons, however, think again.
Satellite images showing improvements being made to the North’s nuclear research facility at Yongbyon, followed by reports that Pyongyang has increased its production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, seem to support post-summit scepticism. Yet perhaps this is what North Korea has always planned, since it never intended to “denuclearise” in the first instance.
We must remember that North Korea’s alleged pledge to “denuclearise” was under its own conditions, not least of all because of how it defines denuclearisation: requiring the US to take down the nuclear umbrella it has put up over allies South Korea and Japan.
Before the Singapore summit, scenarios where the US would ease economic sanctions in return for Pyongyang’s abandoning its long-range missiles (while retaining its short-range capabilities) may have seemed plausible, but critically, nobody knows for sure what the North’s full nuclear capabilities are.
While Pyongyang is not rushing to provide a list of its nuclear stockpiles, progress on this front is slow, as things involving North Korea usually are.
The cacophonous global reaction caused by the closing of the Punggye-ri test site in May provided an ideal backdrop for Pyongyang to obfuscate other, covert operations.
Recent US State Department rhetoric seems to have adopted a new term – “fully-fledged verifiable denuclearisation” – to complement the former “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”.
But whatever the acronym, it must be borne in mind that Pyongyang never consented to it in the first place.
Alliance dynamics seem to be locked in checkmate. As in chess, the threat can never be eliminated, but unconventionally, neither player is willing to end the game.
Trump’s announcement of the planned withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula may be seen as placing the cart before the horse, but, as others have argued, no forces equals no threat, and removing the security threat was an explicit condition for Pyongyang’s denuclearisation.
Importantly, this removal may give Beijing the opening to leverage its power as the big brother in its relationship with Pyongyang.
In a recent meeting with James Mattis, Xi stated China would not give up “one inch” on its territory, and perhaps we can extend this to the realm of dealing with North Korea.
It seems that Xi is not willing to give up on the strength of the DPRK-PRC alliance, particularly in light of any future economic benefits China may gain and its fundamental desire to maintain, at least for now, the status quo – stability on the Peninsula.
It is difficult to conclude without mentioning Trump’s recent contradictory actions: commenting first that North Korea is no longer a “nuclear threat”, followed by his announcement that he would extend for one year the decade-long state of national emergency against the rogue state created by its nuclear weapons.
First North Korea is not a threat, then it continues to be an “unusual and extraordinary” threat. Now, National Security Adviser John Bolton returns to the scene, saying that the US has plans to dismantle Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction within a year, if Pyongyang is “cooperative”. A big if, that is, for sure.
This type of rhetoric is exactly what Pyongyang wants. From the North’s perspective, if Pyongyang is no longer a nuclear threat, and has been deemed as such, enhancing its nuclear capabilities should be of no concern to the international community. Live and let be.
Indeed, Pompeo will inquire about Pyongyang’s nuclear enhancements at Yongbyon, and may not get a straight answer. Yet, to assume that this is a “new situation” of regional and global security dynamics, as Kim Jong-un stated in Beijing in June, may also not be precise.
It may be “new” in terms of the start of dialogue between friend and foe, perhaps, but the long-standing motives of Pyongyang remain to continue nuclear development while luring the US to the negotiating table to get it to grant economic benefits in exchange for vacuous promises. Déjà vu?
Central to this tragedy of North Korean power politics is the realisation that what one wants, one does not (always) get, when one wants it.
For China, Russia, and South Korea, economic cooperation with the North is hampered by the stringency of the last three rounds of UN sanctions, and China will have to keep playing this game with immense patience. For the US, it seems the North is playing a harsh game of chess. And for Pyongyang, well, it seems to be doing reasonably well at not giving up what it treasures, at least for now.
Edward Howell is an ESRC Scholar in International Relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula.