One of the impressions I got from my recent (and lengthy) Washington stay is that the majority of North Korea watchers, in spite of being critical of the Singapore summit and its meager results, still tend to say that the meeting achieved at least one thing.
It is believed that the Singapore agreement, as nebulous and dubious as it was, removed the threat of war, which loomed large through the year 2017, when Pyongyang and Washington exchanged grave threats on a hitherto unthinkable scale.
They might be right: for the time being, the threat of war has indeed been removed. However, one cannot help but wonder whether the current thaw is going to last – and what will happen if (or should we say “when”) it will come to an end. Judging by what is known about the prevailing mood in Washington, it is too early to feel relaxed.
The threat of war has not necessarily been removed from the Korean peninsula – it has likely been merely postponed.
One thing should be clear: denuclearization is not going to happen. The North Korean leadership have no intention of surrendering their nuclear weapons, and their major goal now is to outwait Donald Trump, who they see as dangerous and trigger-happy.
They want to avoid complications until the end of his presidency, and want to do it while sacrificing as little as possible in the process.
But my meetings in Washington DC left little doubt: the resumption of the so-called “maximum pressure policy” is very much in the minds of the officials who do not see progress in the nuclear talks as a likelihood.
No matter what officials are supposed to say in public, few entertain illusions about North Korea’s willingness to surrender or even downsize its nuclear weapons program. A few optimists aside, many in Washington believe that another dose of “maximum pressure” should be administered if the North Koreans keep dragging their feet.
The “maximum pressure policy” was arguably efficient in 2017 and early 2018. Many observers, including myself, believed that Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” played a decisive role in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table.
However, “maximum pressure 1.0” succeeded because it consisted of two key components: both the credible threat of military action and the implementation of very tough economic sanctions.
This dual pressure was made possible by a dramatic U-turn which China executed in summer 2017, when Beijing abandoned their traditionally ambivalent attitude towards the North Korean nuclear issue and began to act with unprecedented toughness, creating, essentially, a united front with U.S. hard liners.
Chinese diplomats voted for the toughest sanctions resolutions ever (and pushed Russians to support them, too), while Chinese government agencies were enforcing regulations with remarkable thoroughness.
In one case, for example, a large shipment of first aid kits was intercepted and held by the Chinese customs only because every such set included tiny scissors.
Those days are gone: the joint front of the U.S. and China proved to be remarkably short-lived. When Trump administration launched a trade war with China, decision makers in Beijing began to wonder whether they should go out of their way in order to help Washington to handle the North Korean nuclear issue.
Additionally, the frantic summit diplomacy of Kim Jong Un, who has virtually chased Xi Jinping in recent months, might have born some fruit, too.
At any rate, the large volume of evidence from the border between China and North Korea leaves little doubt that the days of overzealous enforcement of sanctions are gone.
Smugglers operate with relative impunity now, and small companies began to quietly trade with North Korea once again. The border checkpoints and customs halls, half-empty for a while, are crowded now.
Some people in the U.S. bureaucracy – especially those who work with John Bolton – believe that a timely return to “maximum pressure” will eventually secure the Holy Grail of denuclearization.
The majority are far more realistic, but they still think that possible revival of this policy will deliver meaningful results.
When asked about China’s role, optimistic hard liners insist that China can be persuaded to stay onboard with the looming threat of “secondary sanctions”: that is, sanctions specifically targeting those Chinese and companies which neglect the UN sanctions regime and kept trading with North Korea.
However, this optimism is seldom shared outside John Bolton’s immediate circle of hard liners. It is clear, for example, that Chinese plan for circumventing sanctions will be a permissive attitude to small-scale smuggling, as well as the activities of small companies.
Therefore, in the new situation, when Chinese willingness to actively cooperate is gone, “maximum pressure policy 2.0” will have to rely much more on the U.S.’s own capabilities, which are overwhelmingly of a military nature.
It is not clear if Donald Trump and his advisers meant business when last year they frequently hinted at military operation, but it is quite possible that President Trump was bluffing back then, but, if so, it was a really good bluff, and he managed to scare everybody.
It is also possible that he was not bluffing. It is rumored that at some point in late 2017 only the intervention of senior commanders prevented Donald Trump from ordering a military strike against North Korean missile facilities.
At any rate, if the U.S. returns to a “maximum pressure” policy, we will see even more military preparations and even louder bellicose threats. As was the case last year, very few people will know whether it is all real, but most of the interested parties will still prefer to act on the assumption that Donald Trump means business – and they might be right.
If the U-turn to the ‘maximum pressure policy’ is likely to happen, when should we expect to see it? Officials tend to talk about the near future. Remarks suggesting that the North Koreans have until, say, later this year to deliver meaningful concessions are frequently heard in Washington.
However, few independent observers expect a return to “fire and fury” soon, and even top officials have shown signs of a more relaxed attitude to the issue. Donald Trump recently said that “there is no timetable” on denuclearization, and Mike Pompeo now says that the issue should be sorted out by the end of Trump’s first term.
This is a significant revision of earlier positions, which implied that disarmament should happen immediately.
This quiet change comes as no surprise: Donald Trump has no reason to hurry. Trump’s supporters care little about the North Korean issue, and have swallowed the official line about Pyongyang’s coming denuclearization.
It does not make much sense for Trump to go back “maximum pressure” right now. He will gain much more if he ignores the inconvenient truth and insists that everything goes as intended initially, towards North Korea’s denuclearization.
However, things might look differently when the new election campaign is about to start. If by late 2019 there are no clear signs of the coming denuclearization, Donald Trump might seriously consider returning to the tough line – more so if the Democratic party and/or media succeed in their efforts to present President’s policy as a failure.
If Trump’s North Korean policy begins to look problematic, Trump might decide to fix it by looking tough, and restarting “fire and fury” rhetoric again.
There is also a small (very small) chance that North Koreans will do something provocative – like a missile launch or nuclear test. If this happens, Donald Trump is likely to see it as a personal offense, and will react violently.
However, this scenario is not likely: the North Korean decision makers, being the smart and rational Machiavellians they have always been, understand the risks perfectly well and will not provoke Trump.
Most likely, they will keep feeding the Trump administration with tiny nuggets of reversible concessions, just enough to enable him to maintain the illusion of the “ongoing denuclearization process.”
So, for a while – a year or so, I’d say – we, the inhabitants of the Korean peninsula, can feel relaxed, but in the long run the revival of the “maximum pressure” is possible.
Most observers expect that “maximum pressure policy 2.0” will be even more risky than its earlier iteration. The U.S. side will have to compensate for its inability, due to the uncooperative position of China, to deliver meaningful economic pressure, and will therefore have to put even greater emphasis on the military threats.
If we should brace ourselves for another stint of the “maximum pressure” blackmail, should we expect that a rerun of this policy will deliver results? I personally share the experts’ pessimism, not bureaucrats’ optimism.
You can cry wolf only once, after all, so even military threats will have less of an impact than they had in 2017. The repeated wave of threats is much more likely to be taken for bluff, even if these threats are actually real and end in actual strikes.
At any rate, it seems that in late 2019 or 2020 we may have another tough ride, and the threat of a military conflict will make a comeback.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
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