In Choe Sang-hun’s typically thorough coverage of this weekend’s Pompeo visit to Pyongyang for the New York Times, he offers one possible explanation for North Korean behavior: that the regime has not “changed its decades-old negotiating strategy, which often involves making pledges that it fails to carry out.”
Yet there is a quite different interpretation of recent events: that the Singapore summit generated an outline of the negotiation process that strongly favored the North Korean approach, and the Trump administration has effectively been forced to reset its negotiating strategy.
This interpretation also suggests both the peril and promise of a second Trump-Kim summit.
The risk is that President Trump’s eagerness for a deal could once again give away too much and accomplish too little. The promise is that the administration has learned and will now seek to use its declining leverage to more focused effect, securing a defined process and firmer commitments in advance of a summit.
Recall that the Singapore summit declaration read like North Korean talking points. To be sure, it did repeat Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization. But it did so in language which posited an altogether different negotiating process than American hawks would have preferred: discussions which focused largely on the nuclear question and in which concessions from North Korea would be front-loaded.
By contrast, the substance of the Singapore summit document was contained in four short bullets: improving the DPRK-U.S. relationship; working toward a peace regime; denuclearization; and return of soldiers’ remains, and in that order.
The implication was clearly that denuclearization would only occur in the context of much wider negotiations in which “improvement in relations”—read sanctions relief—and a wider political settlement were on the table.
The short sentence on denuclearization in the first summit document was also loaded with ambiguity, but in a way which also favored Pyongyang’s long-held approach to talks. North Korea would not “denuclearize” but would “work toward” denuclearization, a victory for the incremental “words for words, action for action” concept.
North Korea is looking for nothing less than sanctions relief… as it makes incremental concessions
What has since transpired only strengthens this second interpretation: that North Korea has succeeded in driving the U.S. toward a much more sequenced approach than it initially would have preferred. To date, the precise terms of such a trade have been implicit, particularly following Secretary Pompeo’s third visit. The message: North Korea was not going to disarm unilaterally.
But Ri Yong Ho’s UN speech has now made the implicit explicit: that the North Koreans are looking for nothing less than sanctions relief, and not at the end of the very long road but as they make incremental concessions.
This is not necessarily a negative development; in fact, given where Moon Jae-in stands—not to mention China and Russia—it is simply bowing to reality.
American expert opinion that South Korea is ready to fully open the border to aid, trade and investment is exaggerated. In fact, the Moon administration has been surprisingly cautious given the preferences of its base. Nonetheless, President Moon would clearly like to do more.
And China—while still holding with respect to the bulk of sanctions—clearly has the capacity to turn the trade dial in ways which provide effective support to Pyongyang.
China can do this by relaxing sanctions enforcement and opening up the variety of channels that were not formally proscribed under UN Security Council resolutions.
Russia plays a much smaller role in this drama, but its approach mirrors the Chinese one and it is not surprising that Treasury has been compelled to return to secondary sanctions to shore up pressure.
This view of where we are is not necessarily pessimistic; Philip Zelikow’s widely-read analysis of why narrow negotiations won’t work still stands as the clearest statement of what needs to be done. The question now is figuring out the precise quid-pro-quos.
Opinion seems to be building that securing a declaration of North Korea’s program is a misstep, given the size and complexity of the WMD industrial complex – TaiMing Cheung and I have surveyed the evidence in greater length in a recent working paper and the findings are daunting.
But this does not rule out some sort of declaration on an end to the Korean War as a possible interim quid-pro-quo. The key to such a document would be its prospective nature: that the declaration itself would not have legal status, but like the Panmunjon Declaration would point forward to a full-blown peace regime as a component of any nuclear deal.
Opinion seems to be building that securing a declaration of North Korea’s program is a misstep
I am ultimately skeptical that Kim Jong Un will settle for something that is so fragile and easily reversed. If you believe that sanctions have mattered to getting us to where we are—as I do—then relief on that front is clearly going to be on Pyongyang’s wish list.
The nuclear quid-pro-quos are clearly coming to focus on Yongbyon, with missile test stands as symbolic sideshows. Kim Jong Un’s statement that he stands ready to dismantle Yongbyon is significant, and Secretary Pompeo is right to continually repeat it.
For the cynical, the focus on shutting down Yongbyon might seem nothing but a replay of the failed negotiations of 2007-8, leaving stockpiles of fissile material, other facilities and the weapons themselves to the side.
But at this juncture, it is better to try to reset negotiations than continue along the path we were on, where, Presidential statements to the contrary, very little was actually happening.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
In Choe Sang-hun’s typically thorough coverage of this weekend's Pompeo visit to Pyongyang for the New York Times, he offers one possible explanation for North Korean behavior: that the regime has not “changed its decades-old negotiating strategy, which often involves making pledges that it fails to carry out.”Yet there is a quite different interpretation of recent events: that the
Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, director of the Korea-Pacific Program, and distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego. With Marcus Noland, he is the author of "Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements and the Case of North Korea" (Stanford University Press, 2017).