After the failure of the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, negotiations to denuclearize North Korea are at a standstill.
While there are indications that both sides are still interested in dialog, there remain serious doubts about Kim’s willingness to actually get rid of his nuclear weapons and his long-range missile delivery systems.
NOT TENSE, BUT NOT TENABLE
It is true that North Korea is between a rock and a hard place with regard to growing its economy.
To flourish and bring economic well-being to everyone, sanctions must be removed – or at least greatly relaxed; but for that to happen, Trump insists that Kim must relinquish his nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems; and for that to happen, Kim must have security guarantees.
Yet Kim no doubt recalls what happened to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after the latter disposed of his nukes: rebels supported by the United States overthrew his regime and killed him. The stumbling block is how to break the circle of dependencies.
AN UNEASY PATH
Since “security guarantees” are yet undefined, it is impossible to provide them. Moreover, any security guarantee by the United States would tie Washington’s hands if any conflict involving Pyongyang were to arise – and that is exactly what Kim is attempting to do.
For example, if the U.S. pledged to not attack the North, what would Washington do if Kim were to attack the South – or an American ally elsewhere in the region? Equally importantly, would Kim bet his own survival on the next American administration honoring a security pledge by the current one?
Even so, the U.S. could resume negotiations by discussing small incremental – but completely reversible – steps toward denuclearization such as relief of certain sanctions for humanitarian or infrastructure projects – as long as such relief contains clearly-stated “snap-back” provisions, if cheating or other failures to comply are noted.
Regardless, it should be made clear that the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort are not part of sanctions relief. Both are nothing more than money-makers for the North.
The only benefit of the KIC is cheap labor for the South Korean businesses there, and the only value of Mt. Kumgang is to South Korean tourists. None of that contributes to the denuclearization process – and in fact may work against it since both facilities provide the cash-strapped North badly needed hard currency.
AVOIDING THE LEFT FORK IN THE ROAD
Liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been touting several inter-Korean projects that would help the North’s ailing economy. But sanctions prevent them from being put into action.
However, even without the blocking sanctions, it is unclear whether Kim would tolerate South Korean workers and their managers working and moving about in North Korea.
Moon has yet to recognize the dangers of giving Kim what the North wants without securing something in return, but Trump does
It would be foolhardy to provide Kim with project financing or construction materials without some level of oversight and guidance, if for no other reason than to improve the slipshod quality of work so common in the North.
Kim fears that exposure to South Koreans would bring about an undesirable influence of Western ideas such as capitalism and democracy.
His promise to improve living conditions has value only after the security of the regime is guaranteed. Proof is the continuing money spent on luxury goods for elites to retain their loyalty and nuclear weapons with delivery systems to defend the regime from external threats, rather than on improving the standard of living for the common citizen.
Moon has yet to recognize the dangers of giving Kim what the North wants without securing something in return, but Trump does – and that is why he walked out on the Hanoi summit, leaving negotiations stalemated.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
Psychological studies show that, when long-suffering people finally get a glimpse of improving conditions, it is a very unsettling time for them.
With relief in sight – or being promised – suppressed hopes and desires are allowed to emerge. This leads to great impatience, and if improved conditions do not materialize, it could lead to protests – or worse – in North Korea.
This could be a dangerous time for Kim as well, for he probably sees the light at the end of his tunnel – further negotiations with Trump – and his acting out illustrates his restlessness.
If regime security is the prime objective here, then both Moon and Trump are using the wrong bait to get Kim to denuclearize. History strongly suggests that seeking sanctions relief is merely a stratagem to reduce monetary pressures and to give his nascent unofficial market economy time to grow.
Kim had been banking on a deal in Hanoi as his salvation
So, if Kim is indeed seeking security assurances, what would satisfy him – and what sort of guarantees would the United States be able – and willing – to provide?
A good bet is that Kim would start by asking for (1) signing a formal peace treaty between Washington and Pyongyang, (2) ceasing of US displays of military force in the region, and (3) removing American troops from the peninsula. But how likely is all of that to happen?
The only way to find out – and to stop gratuitous speculation – is for both Kim and Trump to discuss this very point openly with a mind toward actually understanding – not just rebutting – the other’s position.
That is a tall order, but it is the only way a foundation for any kind of deal can be established.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
After the failure of the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, negotiations to denuclearize North Korea are at a standstill.While there are indications that both sides are still interested in dialog, there remain serious doubts about Kim’s willingness to actually get rid of his nuclear weapons and his long-range missile delivery systems.
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.