Pedestrian as it may seem, the metaphor of a scale seems apt in broadly depicting this year’s sequence of U.S.-North Korea interactions. On one end of the scale sits Pyongyang; on the other, Washington. The movable fulcrum, of course, is best personified by South Korea.
Throughout the year, we watched this scale of negotiations, diplomacy, and rhetoric slide, teeter, and re-center to find that delicate point of equilibrium for all three parties. But to the dismay of many, sustained equilibrium has proven to be unattainable, in light of the discord between the parties on end goals and intermediary objectives.
In fairness, the expectation to solve this 70-year behemoth of a Gordian knot under a cinched timeline was a gross underestimation of the problem and an overestimation of our own negotiating and strategic prowess.
But, to illustrate this point, a review of the year’s key developments on the peninsula:
Up until January, ratcheting tensions between Washington and Pyongyang brought – as some Korea watchers contend – the two countries to the brink of war.
Recall the famous nuclear button duel between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim in his New Year’s address had threatened Washington with his readiness to press the nuclear button on his desk; Trump responded in kind via Twitter that he too had a button, one “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim’s.
The spat between the two leaders seemed at one point a very imminent threat, when in mid-January, a warning about an incoming ballistic missile – later recalled as inadvertently sent – rattled residents in Hawaii. The scale, at this point, was off the Richter.
The following month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in extended North Korea an invitation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic games, which Kim accepted. Pyongyang’s delegation included Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, and later, Kim Yong Chol, the DPRK’s spy chief and suspected mastermind behind the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong artillery attack.
The young Ms. Kim – who also runs her country’s propaganda and agitation department – magnetically captivated the international audience with her coquettish simpers and famous side-eye in Vice President Pence’s direction during the Winter Olympics.
In March, a South Korean delegation including National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong visited Washington and delivered Kim’s invitation for a summit with President Trump.
The President’s on-the-spot acceptance of the invitation threw the notion of working up the chain toward a summit out the window, but planted a small seed of hope that perhaps this unconventional, historic meeting would finally lay to rest the decades-long confrontation between the two countries. The scale-fulcrum begins to slide at a relaxed pace, calibrating the weight on either side.
On 27 April, Moon and Kim held a summit – the first since 2007 – in the truce village of Panmunjom. For the first time in history, a North Korean leader had set foot on South Korean soil. Kim, much like his younger sister (who busily accompanied him throughout the summit pageantry), wowed the eager audience with his self-effacing humor and easygoing personality.
In May, however, the U.S.-North Korea tug-of-war came into full effect
Substance, however, went little beyond Seoul and Pyongyang affirming a new era of peace on the peninsula and working toward the common goal of reunification. “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was tucked away at the very end of the Panmunjom Declaration.
To the casual, optimistic observer, this spirit of inter-Korean rapprochement and tempered tensions gave the impression the scale was slowly being leveled – Washington and Pyongyang seemed steadily on the uphill path toward a landmark summit.
In May, however, the U.S.-North Korea tug-of-war came into full effect, with first the DPRK holding in suspense the Trump-Kim meeting by threatening to cancel the talks if the White House were to force “unilateral nuclear abandonment” upon the regime.
Not long after, the North’s vice minister in the Foreign Ministry called Vice President Pence a “political dummy” for his comparison of North Korea to Libya and – despite a date and location for the US-North Korea summit having already been determined – threatened again to pull out from the talks if Washington persisted on its current path of demanding Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
President Moon, who had pledged his role as the driver in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, must have perceived the slackening momentum. In late May, he traveled to Washington to meet with Trump and forestall the cancellation of the Singapore summit.
Trump, in response to the North Korean threats wrote Kim an open letter in which he not only canceled the talks, but reminded Pyongyang of Washington’s own option of “massive and powerful” nuclear capabilities. We were back in the state of uncertainty. And like that, the U.S.-North Korea counterbalancing resumed.
Two days later, Moon and Kim held a two-hour “surprise” second summit – previously unannounced to the public and by Kim’s request.
Fast forward a couple weeks to June, when the much-awaited Trump-Kim summit took place in Singapore.
Pageantry and fanfare aside, the summit achieved little in the way of pegging North Korea to a concrete and binding commitment to denuclearization.
The two leaders agreed on four broad points, including the DPRK’s return of POW/MIA remains and the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
President Trump, though unable to provide reassuring answers to questions on the North’s denuclearization, boasted he had achieved what no previous administration had been able to do, that “nuclear is number one” to him, and that he knows when somebody wants to make a deal or not.
As weeks – and later, months – go by, with little to show in the way of progress, the scale again began to shift. From Washington’s end, frustration mounts from Pyongyang’s cosmetic gestures to give pretense of denuclearization and refusal to interact with the U.S. at the working level – not to mention the growing perception of its widening rift with South Korea due to differences in their approach with North Korea.
President Trump… boasted he had achieved what no previous administration had been able to do
On Seoul’s end, angst builds from Moon’s (partially self-imposed) pressure to deliver on his promises to Kim and Trump. Touting inter-Korean relationship-repatching, the Moon administration pursued measures to ease tensions with its northern neighbor.
The constant sticking point here resided in the pace and sophistication in the development of these inter-Korean engagements standing in bold contrast to – and perhaps even disregard for – the lackluster dividends on the denuclearization front.
This not only bore implications on Washington’s negotiations with Pyongyang over its nuclear program; it also placed under scrutiny the cohesiveness of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
The implicit objective of the September inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang – the third summit held between the two Koreas in less than six months – had been for Moon to convince Kim to extend a credible gesture pointing to his sincere intent to give up his nuclear weapons.
The third time was not the charm, however, as the summit did much to enhance inter-Korean oneness through a number of cross-border engagement projects, yet contrastingly little in the way of addressing the searing question on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Washington conveyed subtle but firm warnings to the Moon administration to keep its North Korea engagement synchronous with denuclearization
And so, denuclearization appeared as the fifth item in the joint declaration, with the DPRK making a promise to dismantle a missile engine test site and dangling the prospect of permanently dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear test facilities pending U.S. corresponding measures stipulated in the Singapore summit.
The policy rift with Seoul becoming increasingly acute, and amid concerns that the busy progress of inter-Korean rapprochement could potentially contradict or weaken the U.S. position on the DPRK’s nuclear program, Washington conveyed subtle but firm warnings to the Moon administration to keep its North Korea engagement synchronous with denuclearization.
Secretary of State Pompeo had expressed discontent with the inter-Korean military pact that would set the two Koreas on the path toward easing tensions on land, air, and sea – long before credible, irreversible steps were taken to reduce the threat from Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
Pompeo had also warned Seoul that the pace in inter-Korean relationship-building should not outpace progress on nuclear talks, calling for closer coordination and cooperation on a regular basis.
Recently, we have seen the Trump administration coolly downgrade a scheduled summit with Moon during the G-20 – relegation to a 30-minute, informal “pull-aside.” Subtle as a sledgehammer.
The November and December reportage on the North’s ongoing missile activity ruffled some feathers among Korea watchers. Divisive positions aside, the international community still confronts a nuclear North Korea not ready to part with its arsenal.
The reality of North Korea’s undeterred missile activity made all the more salient the growing daylight between Washington and Seoul’s positions on handling Pyongyang.
That the Moon administration was pressed to fulfill the last to-do item listed in the Pyongyang joint declaration – paving the way for a Kim Jong Un visit to Seoul by year-end – despite the lack of progress on the longstanding nuclear confrontation did little to advance negotiations with the Kim regime.
Who gets the final word this year? As of now, it appears North Korea has, in typical style, impeccably timed its closing statement for 2018 so as to leave a lingering, unresolved debate with the U.S. and international community.
A 20 December state media statement spelling out the meaning and “geography” behind the expression “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” does little to advance the policy debate – in Washington and Seoul, and between – surrounding Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
If anything, the statement represents the Kim regime’s thumb-rubbing reminder that while the internal and bilateral debates continue running in circles and loops, the DPRK remains undeterred and unchecked in advancing its nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programs.
The Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang scale continues to toddle into the remaining days of 2018
The statement again conveys that North Korea’s “definition” of denuclearization is a non-negotiable. And in tossing this position over to Washington, Pyongyang is expectant of an accommodative shift and flexibility on the part of the Trump administration vis-à-vis the regime’s nuclear program.
The scale, at this point, is skewed toward the DPRK, as the U.S. teeters to determine a workable response to minimize a fallout in negotiations. South Korea, for its part, has been shifty, cautious to maintain the appearance of backing denuclearization in broad terms, yet has not taken an unequivocal stance in support of a nuclear-free North Korea to tip the scale closer toward equilibrium.
And so, the Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang scale continues to toddle into the remaining days of 2018.
As Presidents Trump and Moon (and to an extent, even Kim Jong Un) deliberate on priorities in the next year, familiar topics will continue pressing – “declaration for declaration,” “de facto nuclear state,” “sanctions,” “military threat,” “end of war,” and others.
As final food for thought, if there’s one takeaway from the 2018 summitries, it’s that words carry enough consequential weight to upset the balance and terms of inextricable negotiations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. State Department
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1938 words of this article.