Connect these three dots in the constellation of U.S. negotiations with North Korea, and what picture do we get?
Let’s begin with Kim’s birthday. On 8 January, he turned 35. Of note, the regime continued with its practice since 2011 of not designating the leader’s birthday as an official public holiday.
The last time Pyongyang acknowledged Kim’s birthday was in 2014, when basketball player Dennis Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to the young Kim in front of more than 10,000 North Koreans.
Kim may have chosen to be demure on the domestic front, but his external play seemed otherwise.
COMRADE KIM GOES TO CHINA
With his retinue of family and close advisors – including wife Ri Sol Ju, sister Kim Yo Jong, Ri Su Yong, Kim Yong Chol, foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, People’s Armed Forces Minister No Kwang Chol, and others – Kim boarded North Korea’s green-and-yellow train destined for a three-day trip to Beijing.
Upon arrival, he and his wife were received by Chinese officials and given flower bouquets. On Tuesday, Beijing threw Kim a lavish banquet at the Great Hall of the People; President Xi Jinping made a speech in Kim’s honor and heaped praise on the DPRK-China friendship.
Kim’s trip, summoned by Xi, marks his fourth in less than a year.
During Kim’s stay in China, the two leaders took the opportunity to reaffirm the “invincible friendly relations that can withstand any storm” and deep trust established between the two countries.
Kim and Xi also seized the moment to address the thorny issue of the North’s denuclearization – what KCNA referred to as “the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.”
During Kim’s stay in China, the two leaders took the opportunity to reaffirm their “invincible friendly relations”
Referencing the Singapore summit, Kim affirmed that the North’s “basic position” on finding a peaceful resolution to implement the joint declaration “remains unchanged.”
He gave pretenses that he confided in Xi about his concerns – on the “difficulties…and prospects for resolution” concerning U.S.-DPRK relations and the denuclearization negotiations. Xi responded in kind, describing “the fundamental issues asserted by the North” as “natural demands.”
Further, he called for all sides involved to handle these issues appropriately and affirmed China’s active support and constructive role in the process.
Formalities ensued, with Kim visiting Beijing’s Tong Ren Tang plant – a pharmaceutical factory producing traditional Chinese medicines. Thereafter, he and his entourage departed for Pyongyang.
President Moon Jae-in’s New Year’s news conference this Thursday also referenced denuclearization – “We will not loosen our guard until the promise to denuclearize the Peninsula is kept and peace is fully institutionalized.”
Moon called for Pyongyang to take substantive measures toward denuclearization; he, however, also nudged Washington to take “corresponding measures” to establish trust with Pyongyang so as to accelerate denuclearization.
Urging the two sides to move from the “abstract” to “concrete measures,” Moon suggested that a second U.S.-North Korea summit could serve to indicate that the two sides have narrowed their differences on the nuclear issue.
North Korea, China, and South Korea have expressed support for a second Trump-Kim meeting.
U.S.-DPRK SUMMIT IN THE WORKS?
And by some indicators, it appears Washington – voluntarily or squeezed by anxiety – is considering another face-to-face with Pyongyang, as we have been hearing snippets of preparations for a second U.S.-North Korea summit – candidate locations included Vietnam, Singapore, and Mongolia.
What could a second U.S.-North Korea summit deliver? Taking into account ambitious promises made at the onset of negotiations, as well as scant progress made over time on the nuclear front, Washington should be wary of another hasty walk-in to a summit meeting with the DPRK.
Within the sequence and construct created, it is difficult to fathom Pyongyang – after months of protracted negotiations and feet-dragging, not to mention decades of preserving and developing its nuclear weapons program – soberly taking steps to give in to U.S. demands of CVID or FFVD, or at minimum, cooperating with the U.S. enough to portray success or face-saving on the part of Washington.
Washington should be wary of another hasty walk-in to a summit meeting with the DPRK
As some analysts caution, a second opportunity for Kim to meet with Trump could bring Pyongyang closer to becoming acknowledged as a nuclear weapons state.
Washington will then have to deal with a nuclear North Korea with the capability of striking mainland U.S. territory. This unequivocally increases Pyongyang’s heft – “leverage” – in not only dealing with Washington, but in dynamics with its neighbors, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo.
At first layer, this poses a security, existential threat to the U.S. Peel another layer, the future of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and Washington’s security position in Northeast Asia are placed under the magnifying glass.
Another layer, and the dilemma of balancing China’s influence in the region becomes more pronounced.
And so forth. Perhaps not immediately apparent, the spillage from a second U.S.-North Korea summit could bear implications beyond bilateral interactions, beyond regional dynamics, and beyond the nuclear debate.
And so, it’s prudent to weigh the short- and long-term merits and defaults of acceding to another one-on-one with Kim.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES
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