Kim Jong-un’s summits: playing the Trump card?
Analyse Diplomatie & Buitenlandse Zaken

Kim Jong-un’s summits: playing the Trump card?

04 Apr 2018 - 15:42
Photo: Trump Tower. Bron: Andrew Seaman / Flickr
Terug naar archief

What should one expect from the upcoming summits with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un? Will Pyongyang have its own Trump Tower shortly? Are the two Koreas to be reunited? Or will this diplomatic adventure nosedive for lack of due preparation?

First, let’s see if the summits take place at all. Now that president Xi of China has thrown in his political weight this seems slightly more likely. But accidents can still happen, especially in the aftermath of the power contest between Kim and Trump that escalated in the early days of this year, and may thwart the exercise even at this late stage. The agenda for their meeting, its venue and other delicate details remain to be agreed upon and are potential stumbling blocks. From my own experience I know that negotiating with North Koreans can be a hazardous undertaking. But just assuming that the meetings go ahead as planned, which are the best possible outcomes, which pledges will be on the table and how will a deal benefit the region?

North Korea’s overriding objective
North Korea’s policies are not unpredictable, contrary to what most analysts seem to believe. Its successive leaders have consistently and openly been pursuing a nuclear deterrence capability for decades, arguing that the country is surrounded by hostile nations. To a certain extent history proves the regime right on that point. Hence, the regime considers nuclear deterrence as an insurance for the survival of the nation and the Kim dynasty. To achieve this, North Korea has violated international rules including its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, from which it withdrew in 2003. Any economic or human sacrifice has served to pursue this overriding objective.

Now that North Korea has succeeded it can start playing this powerful trump card (pun absolutely intended). Summit talks with the Americans on an equal footing demonstrate the success of Pyongyang’s persistent policy in this regard. So far, the United States has not been able to reap any political benefit from accepting to meet with Kim Jong-un.

Vogelaar-foto1-Mass games North Korea 2008-Flickr-mister addd
The mass games of North Korea in 2008. Source: mister addd / Flickr

Accepting direct negotiations with North Korea after it developed a nuclear weapon and long distance rockets to deliver them, shows the shortsightedness of successive US administrations on this issue. For too long, Washington has counted on political and economic pressure to bend the successive North Korean leaders to comply with its demand to denuclearize. Now, catalyzed by nuclear threat, a hawk rather than a dove has accepted to sit down with a leader whom he finds despicable and with whom he exchanged unwieldy insults until a few weeks ago. An unlikely scenario.

Unsurprisingly, the current peace initiative has not emanated from the White House but from the Blue House. South Korea is living uncomfortably under the military threat by its unruly neighbour and has repeatedly attempted to develop a modus vivendi with the North. The upcoming inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom, the third of its kind, will expectedly address a variety of regional issues. But the elephant in the room will be whether Kim Jong-un is open to give up his country’s nuclear capability, and at what price?

Chances to engage North Korea were all lost in the past……
After the Cold War, North Korea’s founder and leader of that time, Kim Il-sung, believed his country could survive on its own after it lost the support of the Soviet Union. His juche ideology proved a mistake. North Korea became a ‘lone wolf’ and soon turned to provocations, criminal activities, terrorist acts and human rights violations, for which it has rightly been condemned and punished. All this might have been avoided, however, had the international community engaged with the bereft dictatorship at the end of the Cold War. ‘Bombing’ North Korea with Marshall aid-like assistance might have brought it back into the international fold. China nor Russia were then in a position to prevent this. The US, Japan and South Korea would have footed the bill. But the momentum slipped by neglect.

There has been just one serious attempt to engage the North Koreans before it was too late, the ‘Agreed Framework’ of 1994. Under this arrangement the US pledged two nuclear reactors (unfit for the production of nuclear weapons) as well as interim fuel supplies to cater for North Korea’s energy needs. In return, North Korea accepted to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) would carry out this vast undertaking, largely funded by South Korea and Japan.

Containment, sanctions and ostracism have not stopped the Kim dynasty from building up a nuclear nuisance value at the expense of the North Korean population

After seven years and 1.5 billion US dollars spent, the project collapsed after it was found that the North had secretly continued developing nuclear weapons. In return, Pyongyang accused the US of not living up to its commitments under the Agreed Framework, which was to some extent justified. President Bush Jr. called North Korea part of an ‘axis of evil’. North Korea stepped out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accelerated its pursuit of a nuclear capability of its own. It carried out its first nuclear test in 2006. Although the Six-party talks (which included both Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan) continued and in spite of a second inter-Korean summit in 2007, all mutual confidence was gone. Not even China could (or would) effectively thwart Kim Jong-il’s nuclear ambitions.

….but will president Trump surprise friend and foe in this respect?
Will president Trump be able to reverse this trend? It would not be the first time that a conservative leader surprises friend and foe by engaging their opponents. Think of Begin, Bush Sr., Reagan or Nixon. But the summit meetings they held were initiated by them and were duly prepared. Trump keeps changing his team since accepting Kim’s invitation, Pompeo and Bolton are unlikely assets. He is focused on one single issue, the denuclearization of North Korea. What if this is not on offer? Would a breakdown of the talks be the consequence? The subsequent blame game will give rise to renewed tensions and further escalations between the two antagonists. Or is there some flexibility in the American position? Trump’s tactics, or lack of them, seem risky to say the least.

Vogelaar-foto-Zuid-Koreaans president Moon Jae-in en Donald Trump in Seoul in 2017 (8 nov 2017)-Flickr-Republic of Korea
President of South-Korea Moon and president of the United States Trump during Trump's visit to Seoul, November 2017. Source: Republic of Korea / Flickr

Hopefully President Trump can lean on South Korea and China. Both have a key role to play. They can make or break a deal between North Korea and the US. I assume neither has an interest to do so. Washington and Seoul will need to closely coordinate their positions ahead of the inter-Korean summit of 27 April. And if the Kim-Trump summit is confirmed to be held in Beijing, China will have a stake in avoiding a diplomatic flop. Japan also needs to be consulted, especially since it supposedly pursues a summit of its own with the North Koreans.

Towards a reasonable compromise
So if there is a minute window of opportunity for peace on the Korean peninsula, which are the ingredients that would allow a deal to be concluded? If Kim Jong-un sticks to his guns by not going beyond a freeze or reduction of his nuclear weapons programme, Trump will face a difficult dilemma. To improve on his offer, Kim might propose an extension of the moratorium on testing long-range missiles, ending the Korean War by concluding a peace treaty with South Korea and taking up diplomatic relations with Washington. But will this package be good enough for the US? And what if, emboldened by China, Kim insists on a full withdrawal of US ground troops from South Korea?

In my view, a reasonable compromise might consist of the following. First, a freeze of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme and a reduction of its nuclear stockpile, monitored by the IAEA and guaranteed by all Six-party talks-nations. Second, a peace treaty between South and North combined with a non-aggression pact with the US. Third: a withdrawal of US ground troops; continued joint military exercises of US and South Korea. Fourth, lifting of international sanctions and, lastly, economic and humanitarian aid.

Whether peace is the start or the finish line, the road towards it will be bumpy

Of these, a withdrawal of US ground troops may seem the most controversial. It should not be. Most allies of the US no longer have ground troops whilst continuing to enjoy full American military safeguards. Perhaps paradoxically, the presence of US ground troops on South Korean soil makes that country more vulnerable. It also benefits North Korean propaganda.

The regional powers’ interest
These measures, if agreed, can nor should be taken all at once. Their implementation will require painstaking downstream negotiations. But a deal should be considered as one single deal, not as a sequence of steps that may be suspended at any point or at will, like in the reciprocity based, step-by-step approach of the Agreed Framework. Also, to sustain any deal regional powers will need to pledge political support and contribute to its implementation.

They all have a national interest in doing so. Lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula will benefit China, Japan and Russia both in political and economic terms and may ultimately offer a perspective for regional co-operation, which is long overdue. As the perspective of a reunited Korean nation evaporates China will be able to more openly support North Korea. Japan has been ready to invest in North Korea ever since the Agreed Framework, and may well become the major stakeholder in North Korea’s economic recovery. Once sanctions are lifted the extension of the trans-Siberian railway into the Korean Peninsula will benefit Russia and stimulate overland trade between the Far East and Europe.

All this will not happen overnight. As said, let’s await the outcomes of the twin summits before dishing out dividends. Given the complexity of this long-lasting crisis and of the issues to be addressed, it would already be a major step forward if a broad political package would be agreed upon. The subsequent negotiations could still jeopardize the peace process. Whether peace is the start or the finish line, the road towards it will be bumpy.

Vogelaar-foto-Munsudae Grand Monument-Flickr-Stefan Krasowski
Munsudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang. Source: Stefan Krasowski / Flickr

The good side of this dazzling peace initiative is that the outcome will be known before long. As said, there is not much reason to be optimistic. Yet talks are better than shouting matches or shoot-outs, especially if nuclear weapons are involved. For now, the key question seems to be if the US will –or should – accept anything less than full, irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament by North Korea, as it has been stipulating all along. In my view, it should.

Make Pyongyang an offer it cannot refuse
Regrettably, a world with five ‘official’ nuclear weapons states is one of the twentieth century. In spite of the NPT, nuclear newcomers such as India and Pakistan have joined the five nations that hitherto held the monopoly of possessing nuclear weapons. Proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology remains a threat to international security. A global zero should remain the objective of our collective international endeavours to make our planet a less scary place. But the arrival of these newcomers, against all efforts to contain them, is a fact of life the international community must cope with. In addition to our attempts to prevent nations from acquiring nuclear weapons we now must prevent them from being used.

Containment, sanctions and ostracism have not stopped the Kim dynasty from building up a nuclear nuisance value at the expense of the North Korean population. There we are. Erasing North Korea from the earth will not solve the problem of worldwide proliferation. Nor is it an option in military terms. The best way forward is to make Pyongyang an offer it cannot refuse. Only a broad deal including the political, military and economic components referred to above can turn the tide and rid us of a nasty and risky foe. It will also provide to ‘the Hermit Kingdom’ the first opportunity in half a century to free itself from the chains of poverty and ideology. Let’s hope and pray that ‘Kim III’ is aware of this unique chance.

Europe’s modern history exemplifies that creating interdependence is the best way to overcome divisions. It is not too late for the Far East to embark on this road. America can help to make it happen. Starting May. 


Marc Vogelaar
Oud-ambassadeur & voormalig directeur bij KEDO