Last month I spent nearly two weeks in Washington DC, talking to both officials and experts. As has often been the case in the past, I would like to parse for readers about what is going on inside the Beltway. Some discretion is necessary, of course, so no names are going to be mentioned here.
One thing which is striking in Washington DC’s “North Korea-watching community” in the summer of 2018 is the remarkable level of consensus on all major issues. This is not always the case: during earlier trips to Washington, there have been cases when I was truly perplexed by the level of disagreement among bureaucrats and experts. Now, such uncertainty is not seen: people generally agree on what’s going on, and what we should expect.
Of course, bureaucrats (or those experts who currently work with the administration) see things somewhat differently to independent observers.
This is understandable: being participants in, and to an extent, creators of the current policy, they are far more likely to hold optimistic expectations about this policy’s chances of success – and even if they are not that optimistic their situation makes them propagandists for this policy. However, even this expected difference does not seem to be that pronounced these days.
In frank talks, bureaucrats admit that they understand that denuclearization is no longer a realistic goal
It is clear that the expectations in Washington have quietly changed. For nearly a decade I have insisted that the proverbial “CVID of North Korea” is not achievable. Ten years ago this “pessimistic” (I’d say “realistic”) view was shared only by a small minority.
However, it seems that in the last year or two, in spite of all the loud official talk about coming denuclearization, this opinion has finally become dominant. As one of my contacts said: “the North Koreans have quietly succeeded in changing the general paradigm of negotiations: while, on paper, negotiations are still about the denuclearization, in practice, talks are now about arms control.”
There are, of course, differences between experts and bureaucrats when it comes to the possibility of denuclearization. Experts tend to be quite straightforward in their skepticism, while officials very often cannot bring themselves to openly admit that denuclearization, still presented in the official discourse as the only acceptable outcome, is not actually on the agenda anymore.
Furthermore, there seem to be some bureaucrats (largely, but not exclusively, related to John Bolton, the stalwart of the hardliners) who still believe that with some luck denuclearization can be achieved. However, these people clearly form a minority even among the bureaucrats, and are essentially absent from the expert community.
In frank talks, bureaucrats admit that they understand that denuclearization is no longer a realistic goal, but cannot openly say so because it will have a negative impact on the international non-proliferation regime, and is also not going to be accepted by both the public and the political elite.
Indeed, as everybody understands, the idea of denuclearization has so much more appeal for the average voter, and even the average member of Congress, than the idea that the mighty U.S. should learn to live with a tiny and eccentric country which has somehow acquired a capability to nuke New York City.
Therefore, even those officials who understand perfectly well that the CVID – or whatever is the current fashionable name for this pipedream – is not achievable, they prefer to keep it to themselves.
The expert community is overwhelmingly disappointed by the Singapore Declaration, and the question of why things turned out so poorly is widely discussed in Washington. The most common explanation is poor coordination between Donald Trump and his advisors – or, to be more frank, the President’s disinclination to take advice seriously. It is widely believed that he went to Singapore with little if any preparation.
Donald Trump, it seems, assumed that during his face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un, he would be able to measure the North Korean leader up, and then, relying on his business acumen, would estimate what can and what cannot be achieved in dealing with Pyongyang.
Denuclearization, still presented in the official discourse as the only acceptable outcome, is not actually on the agenda anymore
From this point of view, the Singapore Declaration, like any other written document, was essentially meaningles: what matters is not some kind of written agreement, but the individual chemistry between two leaders.
It is not quite clear to what extent Kim Jong Un is living up to Donald Trump’s expectations, let alone to what extent these expectations are related to reality. There are occasional signs that Donald Trump now feels annoyed by the lack of progress in the months that followed the Singapore Declaration.
Again, this is open to speculation. Many Washington observers believe that one should not expect any significant changes for a long time – until just before the beginning of the Republican primaries.
The next electoral campaign will be the first moment in the foreseeable future when Donald Trump will face the only group of people whose opinions he takes seriously – his base.
If by that time the deal with North Korea goes manifestly wrong (and especially if the critics of this deal are sufficiently loud), it’s quite possible that he will change course.
However, those observers who are less favorable to President Trump believe that he has a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of gradual progress towards denuclearization, even if there is little, if any, progress in reality – and will act accordingly.
Those Trumposkeptics believe that as long as the North Korean issue does not become a major concern for Trump supporters, it is safer for Donald Trump to ignore it and pretend that things are going as intended, even if they are not.
MAXIMUM PRESSURE 2.0
However, if the problems become too pronounced and impossible to ignore, President Trump’s reaction might be quite harsh.
How will the U.S. react if North Korea fails to deliver any significant concession – a scenario that appears extremely likely to the majority of observers? Officials are uniform in what they say: it is assumed that if the U.S. doesn’t get what they hope to get within a reasonable time frame, the administration will reactivate the “maximum pressure policy” which seemingly worked so well in 2017.
It’s assumed that this policy will corner the North Koreans again, pushing Pyongyang towards meaningful concessions, and, as a handful of optimistic hardliners still believe, perhaps, even towards the complete denuclearization.
Experts agree that “maximum pressure policy 2.0” is likely to be even more dangerous than its first incarnation
Such bureaucratic optimism, however, is not shared by the expert community. All independent observers agree that the revival of the “maximum pressure policy,” while highly likely, is not going to deliver what its supporters hope for. According to the experts, the international situation has changed too much.
Experts agree that this change is largely due to the recent shift in the position of China.
The united front of China and the U.S. which existed from, roughly, August 2017 to May 2018, has collapsed. It was an inevitable result of the trade war with China, initiated by the Trump administration. In the new situation, Beijing sees no reason to support the U.S. policy towards North Korea.
Hyperactive North Korean diplomacy – represented, in part, by three Sino-DPRK summits – might have been also played a role in the collapse of this unprecedented united front.
The majority of experts do not expect that China will begin openly violating the UN-approved sanctions regime. It seems to be more likely that the Chinese authorities will choose to turn a blind eye to smuggling and will use existing loopholes in the sanctions to provide North Korea with some assistance, thus helping Pyongyang to keep the economy afloat.
Some hardliners in Washington believe that the threat of secondary sanctions will persuade China to be more careful, but this belief is not shared by the expert community, as well as by many other bureaucrats.
NO DAYLIGHT BETWEEN SEOUL AND WASHINGTON?
It is noteworthy that there is a great deal of unease in Washington in regard to the position of the Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea. While Moon has been remarkably skillful in avoiding possible confrontation with Washington on North Korean issues, it is understood that the long-term objective national interests of Washington and Seoul do not necessarily coincide.
Washington’s return to the “maximum pressure policy” might provoke quite serious frictions with Seoul – problems on a scale we haven’t seen at least since the days of Roh Moo-hyun.
Experts agree that “maximum pressure policy 2.0” is likely to be even more dangerous than its first incarnation – not least because President Trump can see himself as being personally betrayed if he orders such a policy. Chances of “kinetic action”– that is, the use of military force against some selected North Korean targets, will be probably even higher than they were in 2017.
What we see now in the Korean peninsula is generally good news. The tension is reducing, and, for a while, things look quite good. However, one should not forget: the major problems remain completely unsolved.
The North Korean nuclear program has not even been frozen, in spite of the moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches, and tensions still exist – as well as the objective contradictions which created such a tense situation.
Last month I spent nearly two weeks in Washington DC, talking to both officials and experts. As has often been the case in the past, I would like to parse for readers about what is going on inside the Beltway. Some discretion is necessary, of course, so no names are going to be mentioned here.One thing which is striking in Washington DC's "North Korea-watching community" in the summer of 2018
About the Author
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.