The North Korean leadership has in recent weeks found itself in an extremely uncomfortable, and potentially risky, situation. In the aftermath of the failed Hanoi summit, prospects for future negotiations with the United States do not look good.
Even if negotiations resume, it seems that the United States is unlikely to give North Korea the type of concessions Kim Jong Un and his advisors expect.
And while international sanctions have failed to produce any kind of crisis inside North Korea so far, they still make a resumption of the kind of economic growth which the country saw in the first years of Kim Jong Un’s rule impossible.
The young leader knows well, of course, that his only chance at staying in power in the long-term is economic recovery.
With this in mind it’s clear that, for the time being, the diplomatic strategy that the North Korean government has followed in recent years has been unsuccessful.
A few words of caution are necessary here. As an ancient Georgian poet noted, after all: “everyone considers themselves a great strategist when he sees a battlefield from afar.”
Decisions in foreign policy (like decisions in business, warfare, and many other areas) are made when the people in charge don’t have access to all necessary information and have to rely on what is known at the time of the decision making.
Historians, armed with the wisdom of hindsight, necessarily find themselves in a privileged position, and as such should not be excessively harsh in their judgement.
We have seen countless time how disastrous consequences were brought about by decisions which looked perfectly reasonable. On top of that, one should not be excessively critical about the North Korean diplomats who, for decades, have shown remarkable skills in playing an extremely difficult game.
Nonetheless, nobody is safe from mistakes — and North Korean strategists are no exception.
So, what went wrong for North Korean foreign policy in the last eight years (if judged from the point of view of the Kim family’s long term interests, of course)?
The first mistake was alienating China – or, perhaps, the lack of efforts to woo China.
The last years of Kim Jong Il’s rule were marked by a significant improvement of relations with Beijing. For a brief while, this continued under Kim Jong Un, but things quickly took a dramatic turn for the worse.
North Korea, in spite of its steadily growing economic dependence on China, did a lot to annoy Beijing
Throughout the 2013-2016 period, the North Koreans kept their distance from China. It’s telling that it took a major international emergency — the seemingly real threat of a U.S. military strike — to get Kim Jong Un to finally visit China in March 2018.
Furthermore, under Kim Jong Un the North Koreans were frequently provocative towards China. They confiscated a large Chinese iron ore mine, they intercepted Chinese fishing boats, they harassed and arrested hwagyo, the Chinese citizens who have North Korean permanent residence rights.
When Kim Jong Un’s uncle and his erstwhile close advisor, Jang Song Thaek, was arrested and almost immediately executed in 2013, the openly published indictment claimed that the fallen dignitary had been excessively soft on China (euphemistically referred to as ‘a large country’).
A living example of these uneasy relations is a large bridge which was supposed to connect the Chinese city of Dandong with the North Korean city of Sinuiju.
The new bridge, built to replace the old and increasingly dysfunctional 1944 bridge, was basically completed in 2014, but never opened.
It was the Chinese who built the bridge, but it was left to the North Koreans just connect its southern (that is, Korean) end with the road network. But they have refused to do so, so the unused bridge ends abruptly in the middle of a paddy field.
Such a policy might have some explanations. For example, there are good reasons to believe that the Chinese leaders favored two other members of the Kim family – Jang Song Thaek and Kim Jong Nam — over Kim Jong Un (both ended up being killed on the young leader’s orders).
It seems possible that Kim Jong Un, too, has held an arrogant and hostile attitude to China since his school days in Europe.
One thing is clear: in 2011-2016 North Korea, in spite of its steadily growing economic dependence on China, did a lot to annoy Beijing.
This policy, predictably, backfired. When, between 2016-17, U.S. diplomats at the UN Security Council suggested new and unprecedentedly harsh sanctions against North Korea, Chinese representatives, contrary to what most people expected, eagerly accepted the proposal.
They did not try to water the sanctions down and, in some cases, even pressed the otherwise reluctant Russians to support the toughest sanctions ever.
As a result, the ‘sectoral sanctions’ introduced between February 2016 and December 2017 put North Korea into a position akin to a full-scale economic blockade.
In early 2018, the North Korean government likely realized that it had gone too far and began to work hard to woo China back. The trade war between China and the United States made their task a lot easier.
However, in many regards, it was too late.
The sanctions introduced by the UN Security Council will be very difficult to lift. Once a decision is accepted by all five permanent member states, it can be removed only if all them agree to it.
Given the tough American position on the issue, the removal of sanctions looks highly unlikely. In the UN Security Council it does not matter what the Chinese and Russians say – only the unanimous actions of the five great powers make a difference.
The North Koreans have only themselves to blame for this turn of events
Of course, China is not eager to enforce sanctions nowadays, but it seems unlikely that Beijing will openly challenge the UN sanctions regime. Doing so would put them in a highly unfavorable position on many other issues.
Therefore, one can expect that in the foreseeable future China will look for all possible loopholes in the sanctions regime in order to keep North Korea afloat.
But these loopholes are not particularly large or numerous – not least because in 2016-17 the Chinese diplomats themselves worked hard to ensure that the sanctions regime would be as solid as possible.
As this author has said above, the North Koreans have only themselves to blame for this turn of events.
Had they been nicer to China, and had they been more willing to accommodate Chinese demands in 2012-2015, China probably would be significantly less harsh when it came to working out the sanctions regime.
Another mistake by the North Korean leaders was their decision to proceed with developing their ICBM capabilities at a time when the White House had a new and rather unusual tenant.
There is little doubt that North Koreans have always wanted to possess a delivery system capable of striking the continental United States — and the significant technological breakthroughs of the Kim Jong Un era made this possible much faster than most outside observers expected.
However, this success backfired.
In 2017, the North Koreans discovered that they were facing a President who was willing to consider a preemptive strike against them, with little regard for a possible retaliation against targets in the South.
Rightly or wrongly, Donald Trump was seen as a President who could not be deterred by concerns about the fate of U.S. allies.
It was under the tenure of such a President, then, when the North Koreans decided to demonstrate their crown achievement – the workable ICBM program.
Predictably, the successful ICBM tests in 2017 triggered an unprecedented response from Donald Trump, which, together with Chinese reluctance to raise a finger to protect Pyongyang, resulted in the emergence of the present-day sanctions regime.
There might have been another, less significant, mistake made by the North Koreans. Perhaps influenced by the massive anti-Trump slant of the mainstream American media, they underestimated the U.S. President.
I strongly suspect that the North Korean government and its diplomats will find a solution
It appears that they expected that Trump would be willing to accept their proposal – that is, to surrender almost all of the sanctions regime in exchange for a very partial surrender of North Korea’s nuclear production capabilities.
This did not work out — and now North Korea’s decision-makers are facing an extremely dangerous and bumpy ride ahead.
Personally, having studied the country for 35 years, I strongly suspect that the North Korean government and its diplomats will find a solution and will jump out of this trap.
However, at the time of writing, it appears that they are locked in an unfavorable situation. Unfortunately for them, it is, to a large extent, of their own making.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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