On October 27, President Donald Trump, speaking in Illinois, made important remark regarding North Korea’s nuclear program.
Denuclearization is not something which can be done in a hurry, he said, so the U.S. will be happy as long as North Korea is not engaged in nuclear and missile tests.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I tell my people, I couldn’t care how long [denuclearization will take], as long as there’s no testing, as long as there’s no nuclear testing.”
Donald Trump is not known for consistency, to put it mildly, but in this particular case, his new statement ties remarkably well with what has been said recently.
For example, in late September, the U.S. President also confessed he is not in any rush with denuclearization, saying “I think we are really going to do something that is very important, but we are not playing the time game. If takes two years, three years, or five months. It doesn’t matter. There is no nuclear testing and there is no testing of rockets.”
This approach is in stark contrast with statements we have recently heard from other prominent members of the Trump administration.
For example, in early September John Bolton, the national security adviser and Washingtonian super-hawk, claimed that in April Kim Jong Un had assured the ROK President Moon that North Korea could denuclearize “in one year.” Bolton noted that he “thought they could do it even more quickly.”
President Trump’s remarks are consistently different from what we have heard from his team. Does this mean that the soft line, perhaps, even implicit willingness to quietly accept North Korea’s nuclear status for the time being, has come to dominate the White House’s approach to the issue?
Donald Trump is not known for consistency, to put it mildly
Well, not exactly.
Donald Trump might be expressing his soft approach to the nuclear problem, and his willingness to wait a long time (his “strategic patience,” I would say).
However, at the very same time the State Department, and especially the Department of Treasury, are taking measures which can be described as unusually tough.
In September, during the Pyongyang visit of ROK President Moon Jae-in, high-level executives of four major South Korean business conglomerates (chaebol)(Samsung, Hyundai Motor, LG and SK) followed their President on his trip to the North Korean capital.
Their presence in Pyongyang was largely a symbolic gesture: UN Security Council resolutions make nearly all kind of investment or meaningful economic interaction with North Korea illegal and hence impossible.
Nonetheless, it was a powerful gesture whose implicit goal was to demonstrate to the North Koreans, as well as to the broader world, that Seoul is willing to engage in large-scale economic cooperation as soon as the situation allows it.
However, this gesture provoked important counter-gestures from the United States. Once the chaebol leaders were back, officials from the U.S. embassy in Seoul made phone calls to all four conglomerates, inquiring whether the South Korean business groups were indeed planning to engage in kind of economic activity in North Korea.
According to the reports, during these phone calls, the U.S. diplomats made it clear that such engagement might be seen as an infringement on the UN-approved and U.S.-supported sanctions.
Surprisingly, even such a seemingly innocuous government agency as the Korean Forest Service was subject to the same thinly-veiled threat from the United States. In this case, the inquiring/warning calls from the embassy were prompted by the Korean Forest Service’s plans to engage in large-scale ($100 million) reforestation program within the DPRK.
Seoul is willing to engage in large-scale economic cooperation as soon as the situation allows it
While such a reforestation program seemingly does not contradict the existing UN sanctions directly, it might also involve the transfer of technology and equipment, which is likely to be banned.
So, the U.S. embassy made it clear that such actions will not necessarily be tolerated or overlooked.
In late September the U.S. Department of Treasury also held a teleconference with several major South Korean banks, inquiring whether their actual or possible activity in North Korea would constitute a sanctions violation.
So, in spite of the soft statement emerging from the White House, the U.S. bureaucracy is tightening its position on the enforcement of the international sanctions targeting North Korea.
This basically confirms this author’s experiences: when talking to U.S. officials in recent months, I inquired whether it would be possible to relax sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s meaningful concessions on the nuclear issue.
Every time, this idea was decisively and out-rightly rejected.
These seemingly hectic signals might indicate that, finally, we see a U.S. strategy on the Korean peninsula. Obviously, the United States President has indicated his willingness to engage in talks and even overlook North Korea’s unwillingness to hurry with the denuclearization measures.
However, the U.S. administration also makes clear: as long as North Korea does not dramatically reduce its nuclear program, it cannot count on any significant relaxation of the ongoing economic sanctions.
Obviously, the U.S. government still hopes that in the long-run the toughest-ever economic sanctions will make life intolerable for the North Korean elite, so these people will have no choice but to seriously consider denuclearization or, at least, significant concessions on the nuclear matters.
Perhaps, these expectations have been strengthened by recent North Korean threats to restart its nuclear weapons program if the United States refuse to release sanctions.
However, these expectations are unfounded. The North Korean leaders are not going to consider denuclearization because, for them, it is akin to a collective political (or, perhaps, even physical) suicide. No amount of pressure, as well as no amount of promised material rewards, is likely to change their position.
No doubt, the UN Security Council sanctions still matter. It is true that recently, when the trade war with the United States began, China significantly softened its approach towards sanctions’ enforcement. Nowadays, Chinese authorities are willing to overlook smuggling and small-scale trade operations between North Korean entities and smaller Chinese companies.
However, as long as the UN sanctions remain in place, the CEO of any large Chinese company will think twice before authorizing any deal with the DPRK.
The current U.S. strategy seems to be based on the wrong assumptions
Unlike small businesses in border towns which have few, if any, reasons to be afraid of U.S. “secondary sanctions,” larger Chinese companies have a lot to lose and they are unlikely to risk their vital economic relations with the United States in order to get some small profits from dealing with North Korea.
However, even small-scale business activities (including, of course, smuggling) are likely sufficient to keep the North Korean economy afloat for the time being. From the point of view of DPRK decision-makers, it is more than enough.
The current U.S. strategy seems to be based on the wrong assumptions. Nonetheless, inhabitants of Northeast Asia, including this author, should welcome this seeming victory of yet another type of wishful thinking in Washington.
As long as the United States follows this line, it is unlikely that the hardliners, so prominent in the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, will have the upper hand. This means that chances of the situation sliding towards the highly dangerous tensions will remain low, and this is good.
Of course, in an ideal world, one should argue that in the current situation, when the North Koreans are seemingly still willing to make at least some significant concessions, it would be much better for the U.S. to quietly abandon the grossly unrealistic dream of complete denuclearization (no matter whether it’s called CVID or something else) and negotiate a partial solution.
It would be a pity if the current line will lead to the loss of a rare opportunity to achieve a meaningful compromise
Such a solution should be aimed at the significant reduction of the North Korean nuclear program and the subsequent freezing of this program on a new lower level.
However, such a compromise is seen as unacceptable by U.S. decision makers and the U.S. public. These people who still have not realized that North Korea’s nukes are here to stay, at least as long as the Kim family regime stays in power in Pyongyang.
Therefore, it would be a pity if the current line will lead to the loss of a rare opportunity to achieve a meaningful compromise. Nonetheless, it’s still good that this policy essentially precludes the dramatic deterioration of the situation and return to the tough ride we experienced last year.
It’s always good to have good news, but the absence of bad news is not bad at all.
Let’s hope that Donald Trump will persist in his wishful thinking, ignoring the highly-dangerous suggestions of his hard-line advisers.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ridge Shan
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