On May 24, President Trump cancelled his planned summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, blaming his decision on a threatening statement from Pyongyang.The statement in question is the reaction of North Korea to Jonh Bolton’s suggestions that the ‘Libyan model” could be the basis of talks with Pyongyang. It is still not clear if the decision to cancel the meeting will be final.
Just a few months ago the US and North Korea seemed dangerously closed to conflict, with Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un exchanging strong insults and threats.
The latest episode in this ‘war of words’ took place last March, when Trump, during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, called Kim Jong Un “rocket man” and said that Kim’s actions “show that he appears to be on a suicide mission”. He even warned the North Korean Leader that if the U.S. ever felt threatened, it would “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Kim replied to this comment by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard”.
Any meeting between the two leaders seemed unthinkable at that point.
Then, in early May, the date and location of the historic meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was announced: the two leaders will meet in Singapore on June 12 and Singapore had confirmed the meeting. The country was chosen as a safe, neutral location where North Koreans can travel visa-free and where both the US and North Korea have embassies.
So how did we reach this point and what is there to expect?
The media labeled the rapprochement of the two Koreas, and the “charm offensive” of Kim Jong Un towards Donald Trump and the international community, as extraordinary. But this should not be a surprise to anyone following closely the North Korean developments over the past years.
Since 2012, when Kim Jong Un took power, he took a new economic approach, introducing agricultural reforms that allowed farmers to sell the surplus of their production for private use, favouring the expansion of the middle class, and testing new ideas in the production and supply chains. At the same time, the North Korean leader has been hinting at intentions for a rapprochement with the South, that would eventually lead to ending hostilities in the Korean peninsula.
He made these intentions even more clear during the past three years through informal contacts.
On many occasions, he has conveyed that he would be ready to discuss with the US if provocations and hostile acts could come to a halt. However, the persistence of the US administration to get into talks only if Pyongyang suspends nuclear and missile tests as a pre-condition delayed any diplomatic solution and have led to war mongering rhetoric from both sides.
Kids playing in a backstreet in the outskirts of Pyongyang.
Political recognition and an end to US hostility has been a constant demand of the Kim administration for the past thirty years. In this goal the country had adhered to the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed framework, under which Pyongyang committed to freezing its illicit plutonium weapons program in exchange for aid and political recognition.
Although the deal collapsed in 2002, after President Bush took office, the Six Party Joint Statement Agreement was achieved in 2005, under which Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear and missile program and would allow international inspections. As a result, the country was promised a non-aggression pledge from the US, humanitarian aid, fuel, and a commitment that both the US and North Korea would “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
Unfortunately, this agreement collapsed when Washington did next to nothing to implement its commitments to humanitarian aid and reconciliation.
In January 2018, Pyongyang announced that North Korea will participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in South Korea with both athletes and a delegation. Both Koreas entered the Opening Ceremony marching under the Korean Unification Flag and they competed as a single united team in women’s ice hockey.
While the media were looking for hidden agendas, the two Koreas surprised the world, when two months later, on April 27th, an intra-Korean summit took place (for the first time in eleven years) in Panmunjon. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in signed the Panmunjon Declaration, restoring the “sunshine policy” of the 1998-2007 period. The Declaration contained concrete pledges for joint economic, cultural, and sport projects, family reunifications and a commitment for a complete end to all hostile acts, phased disarmament, and ultimate denuclearization of the peninsula, although no concrete action plan was announced.
It is still early to assume how this summit will affect North Korea’s economy, but it seems that modernizing infrastructure will play an important role in current and future agreements. The Korean Herald reported
that the leaders of South and North Korea discussed the possibility of building a railway across the Korean Peninsula to better connect the North via the South’s high-speed train system. This was also hinted by the South’s Korea Railroad Corp. CEO Oh Young-sik when he told reporters that the company is preparing for the possibility that the two Koreas will agree to restart the South-North railway project during the inter-Korean summit.
In a media-driven world, the effect of the Panmunjon summit was immediate. It transformed Kim’s image from that of a comic book villain to a normal and respectable state leader.
The meetings with China and the impasse of maximum pressure policy
Following the summit with the South Korean President, Kim Jong-un visited Beijing to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This was his second meeting with the Chinese President, following the first one that took place on 25th March, a month ahead of the Panmunjon meeting.
Both meetings between Kim and Xi have helped improved ties with China and strengthened North Korea’s negotiation position with both the US and South Korea. This was an opportunity for China to reassert its vital role in North Korean politics and shifted its position back to its semi-supportive approach to North Korea. It seems plausible that Kim negotiated terms with President Xi before the meeting with South Korea’s President and the upcoming summit with Donald Trump. As an exchange, the Chinese president might have offered the easing of sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions against North Korea, as well as political and economic support.
This would have weakened US policy of maximum pressure as it would isolate President Trump if he wish to return to this approach.
The Libyan model and the North Korean issue
On May 16, North Korea has threatened to cancel the summit with President Trump as well as talks with South Korea, arguing that US-South Korea military exercises underway are a provocation. According to Pyongyang, the inclusion of the B-52s flights in joint military exercises and not the exercises themselves, indicate that both President Trump and President Moon are not committed to the peace process in the Korean peninsula.
Pyongyang’ threats to cancel the meeting was also a reaction to the earlier suggestions of Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton that Libya could serve a model for managing North Korean disarmament, giving up the weapons program in exchange of economic aid and sanctions relief.
North Korea might fear that President Trump will come to the summit with an ultimatum to disarm in exchange of aid or face more sanctions and war.
North Korean vice-foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan made it clear that aid and economic investments will not lure Pyongyang in an agreement. In a statement the vice minister said that “If the Trump administration takes an approach to the DPRK-U.S. summit with sincerity for improved DPRK-U.S. relations, it will receive a deserved response from us. However, if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit.”
This reply prompted President Trump to clarify that his administration is not pursuing the “Libyan model” for North Korea and said that arrangements for the summit are still underway. The US President also added that North Korea will “get protections that are very strong” if Pyongyang deals on its nuclear program and that Kim will “be running the country” and North Korea “would be very rich.”
It seems that those statements will ease tensions for the time being and the summit might take place- unless President Trump or Kim Jong-un decides to cancel it.
It is still too early to conclude that Trump has decided to ignore Bolton’s advice or that this is a manoeuvre, to entertain Pyongyang’s suspicions over the Libyan model idea.
A traffic lady stands next to a bus in downtown Pyongyang
What is certain is that both countries define denuclearization in a different way. The US is pushing for full denuclearization, while for Pyongyang nuclear weapons are a negotiating card and its chance for survival. The North Korean leader has invested politically and economically in the nuclear program and it seems very unlikely that he will commit to a full denuclearization at this stage.
No matter how small or big the gains will be for both sides, if a summit takes place it will definitely be the start of a longer US-North Korea conversation and an agreement — albeit modest — will occur that both sides can claim as a “victory.”