So, the summit was cancelled – and it was the American side that pulled the plug. As Donald Trump’s letter to Kim Jong Un explained, the reason for the cancellation was the “tremendous hostility” expressed in North Korea’s most recent statements. So, what has happened, and what should we expect to happen next? Predictions are a tricky business, of course, but it is probably the right time to think about the future – which is certain to be stormy.
To which North Korean statements did President Trump refer in his letter? Obviously, he meant two recent declarations made by Kim Kye Gwan and Choe Son Hui, senior North Korean diplomats, who expressed their displeasure over U.S. officials talking about the ‘Libyan model’ as an example North Korea should emulate, and warned that excessive demands by the U.S. would cause Pyongyang to reconsider its plans for the summit.
The Kim Kye Gwan and Choe Son Hui’s statements must be seen in the context of recent events. Beginning in late November 2017, North Koreans began to suggest their willingness to negotiate, and the early months of 2018 saw an unprecedented charm offensive by Pyongyang. Uncharacteristically, the North Koreans have been making one concession after another: they unilaterally introduced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests; they released U.S. detainees; they suggested they would demolish their nuclear test site. They were nice, smiley, and asked little in return – at least openly.
Meanwhile, the U.S. administration began to put demands on the table, openly suggesting that North Korea should follow the Libyan model of the early 2000s. The model has been frequently mentioned in the North Korean press as an example not to emulate – indeed, everybody remembers how Muammar Gaddafi met his sorry end, and the North Koreans (with good reason) believe that the Libyan dictator died because he once believed the Americans and accepted the same model the White House is now pushing on Pyongyang.
So, the North Koreans made a couple of relatively mild statements – not particularly tough by their standards – to serve as a reminder that the other side should not expect unconditional surrender from Pyongyang.
If this is indeed a trick, we are lucky
But then things took a sudden turn. Donald Trump used this statement as a pretext to walk away from the negotiating table. Pointedly, it was announced just after the North Koreans demolished their nuclear test site and returned U.S. detainees. So it did look as if the North Koreans were taken advantage of: they did what they promised, only to see the back of their would-be partner, who was walking away (which, if the rumors are true, many a New York sub-contractor or real estate dealer has seen before).
IS IT A TRICK?
The first question is how serious Donald Trump is about canceling the summit. Given his well-known negotiation tactics, one can suspect that we might be dealing with a negotiating trick. President Trump began to see that he is not going to get what he wants – CVID or its close approximation – so it is not impossible that he has decided to increase tensions in order to squeeze more from Pyongyang.
Interestingly, this is the negotiating tactic which has been widely used by the North Koreans. Countless times, North Korean negotiators have overreacted to the moves and statements of the other side and rushed out of the negotiations, citing the alleged “hostile intentions” of their counterparts. Even Kim Kye Gwan and Choe Son Hui’s statements contained hints of such an approach.
However, this time the North Koreans were treated to a good dose of their own medicine, and they see themselves on the receiving end of their favorite negotiating ploy. Rough justice, should we say?
If this is indeed a trick, we are lucky. It means that at some point in the near future the negotiations will restart, and the summit will take place – perhaps even later this year. Judging by the immediate reaction of North Korea, this is what they want. They are still willing to negotiate, despite their shock and surprise at Donald Trump’s statement.
Given the looming threat of confrontation, and the growing pressure of sanctions, they do have reasons to forge a compromise, and hence are likely to talk.
Paradoxically, if the cancellation was merely a tactic, it might bring mixed results. On one hand, North Koreans will probably have little choice but to make more concessions. On the other hand, the seemingly unpredictable reactions of Donald Trump will probably further strengthen their belief that no matter what, ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization’ (CVID) is not acceptable, as this would leave them at the mercy of a seemingly impulsive and unpredictable person who is always ready to break his agreements.
Let’s hope that it was merely a trick indeed, since the alternatives could send us down a very dangerous and slippery road.
This time the North Koreans were treated to a good dose of their own medicine
WHAT WILL NORTH KOREA DO?
Option 1: go to Beijing
The recent months were marked by two visits to China by the previously reclusive Kim Jong Un. Judging by the tone of North Korean coverage, the first visit to Beijing in March was considered a success: the North Korean newspapers began to write about China extensively, and Xi Jinping was referred to in exclusively reverential terms. The second summit, in Dalian in early May, seemingly did not go very well: the enthusiasm for all things Chinese in North Korean media suddenly waned.
However, in the current situation, facing a re-emergence of the ‘bloody nose’ threat and eventual impact of a tough new series of sanctions, Kim Jong Un has little alternative. If talks with the U.S. are not resumed, he will have to go back to China to ask for assistance.
China can help in two ways. First, it is conceivable that the Chinese will find ways to get around sanctions, or will just instruct their companies to ignore UN regulations. They can also increase aid to North Korea, providing fuel and food, among other things. Second, China can cite the existing mutual defense treaty with North Korea, and guarantee its protection against a possible U.S. attack. (We are not talking troops here, but rather advisers, intelligence, and sophisticated military hardware which may come in handy.)
However, this outcome is not certain. Nobody in Beijing is fond of the North Koreans, and it is not certain whether China will risk a further confrontation with the U.S. over North Korea’s problems.
Additionally, even if China provides North Korea with assistance, it will come with a hefty price. China will demand a lot in return – in both political and economic terms. So, even if China is willing to take the North Korean regime under its wing, it is an open question whether such a deal is going to be accepted by the North Korean leaders.
If Chinese assistance does not come, or if the price for such assistance is seen as unacceptable, North Korea will be left with with two options.
Option 2: behave themselves
First, North Korea might still try to outwait Donald Trump while remaining cautious, meaning they will not restart their nuclear and ICBM testing, since it might trigger an American strike. They will try to keep a low profile, somehow surviving under new, much tougher conditions.
One might expect that the market-oriented reforms, so prominent and successful recently, will be slowed down or put on hold, and inside the country the emphasis will be on surveillance, discipline, and (perceived) loyalty. It is not clear yet how harmful sanctions will eventually be, but the North Korean regime survived a major famine just two decades ago, after all, so they know a thing or two about how to stay in power and keep their population docile.
Option 3: raise the stakes
It is equally possible, though, that the North Korean regime will react by raising the stakes and restarting their weapons testing. (The need to create a new testing site will delay the process for a while, but not for long.) The verbal bellicosity will reach unprecedented heights, and military preparations will follow.
North Korea might still try to outwait Donald Trump while remaining cautious
The goal will be simple: to indicate that any attack against North Korea will be met with resistance, and will cost the attackers dearly. This might help to cool some heads in Washington, but it could also bring the opposite result: the U.S. (especially the war hawks) will see it as a provocation, and will say it justifies a military response. There is the chance that such operations could escalate into a major war, of course.
For the inhabitants of the Korean peninsula, it will be much better if recent events were, essentially, a ploy. However, this is not very likely to be the case, so it is time to be ready for the surprise twists and turns ahead, most of which will not be particularly pleasant, and some of which will be positively risky.
The cancellation of the summit was a massive setback for hopes of a Korean détente, and it seems possible that the Korean peninsula will soon resume the slow-motion slide towards war that we saw last year.
Edited by Colin Zwirko and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks
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