The American side, the North Koreans emphasized, had not brought any new proposals, and what the Americans had suggested had been unacceptable.
North Korea, it continued, is not interested in talks unless the United States makes a significant revision of their negotiating position and brings an end to what Pyongyang describes as its “hostile policy towards the DPRK.”
Furthermore, Kim Myong Gil hinted that the unilateral moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests introduced by the North Koreans in late 2017 can be withdrawn, since its future depends on the U.S.’s behavior.
Such a turn of events was frankly unexpected, at least for yours truly. Like many other observers, I expected and even predicted that the meeting would be likely to eventually produce some kind of compromise, a swap of the partial dismantlement/freeze of North Korea nuclear facilities for a partial relaxation of the UN-endorsed economic sanctions.
The world has changed a lot since the beginning of the current U.S.-North Korea diplomatic soap opera
Of course, such a compromise would be imperfect, and, probably, would have a remarkably short life expectancy, being bound to collapse within a few months or a few years.
Nonetheless, in spite of these shortcomings, such a partial agreement would have at least prevented the current crisis from further escalation. However, as we have seen, events took a different path.
A DIFFERENT WORLD?
Observers need to admit that the world has changed a lot since the beginning of the current U.S.-North Korea diplomatic soap opera. There are at least three major factors that have changed the situation in and around North Korea in recent months.
Now, with John Bolton gone, a major brake on U.S. diplomacy has been removed and, one would expect, more bold decisions would become possible.
Another vital change was the beginning of the impeachment process inside the United States. While chances of actual impeachment remain extremely low, largely due to the Republican control of the Senate, the impeachment procedures will put significant pressure on President Trump.
Most likely, this intense domestic in-fighting will distract him from dealing with anything but his domestic agenda and, if this is indeed the case, he is likely to take a more passive stance on the North Korean issue.
This is exactly what North Korea wants: one of the major reasons which, back in late 2017, pushed North Korea to the negotiation table was the unprecedented bellicosity of Donald Trump.
At that time, it was widely believed that the U.S. President was capable of authorizing a preemptive strike against North Korean targets. Now that seems much less likely.
The North Koreans now have significantly fewer reasons to be afraid of Donald Trump
Another factor whose relevance is often overlooked is the lessons that can be learned from the recent tensions with Iran. There, it became clear that the Trump administration, in spite of its verbal bellicosity, is actually very cautious when it comes to using military force.
Even though the United States recently faced, in the Middle East, a threat of significantly greater dimensions than the potential threat presented by North Korea’s nuclear and missile weapons development, Donald Trump did essentially nothing to counter it.
For many North Korean analysts, this was seen as an indicator that his bellicosity in 2017 was fake, and that the U.S. President was bluffing, as many indeed suspected.
In practice, this means that the North Koreans now have significantly fewer reasons to be afraid of Donald Trump. He’s seen as a person under immense domestic pressure and also probably not as decisive and aggressive as he looks.
However, the single most important difference is the dramatic change in the Chinese attitude towards North Korea. From summer 2017 to spring 2018, China supported the tough U.S. position, and this unusual attitude constituted a major problem for the North Koreans, given their dependency on trade and exchange with China.
Since spring 2018, China changed tack and began to see the support of North Korea as an efficient asymmetrical answer to the U.S.-initiated trade war.
In this situation, the North Korean leaders know that China will not let their domestic situation deteriorate too much and will definitely keep them afloat. Kim Jong Un and his advisers might have concluded that this is enough for the time being.
TWO POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS FOR YET ANOTHER DEBACLE
As has been noticed, there was something strange about the behavior of the North Korean diplomats, who obviously delivered a statement that was prepared in advance.
They simply had no time to draft such a detailed statement within the 10 or 15 minutes, which passed between the return of their representatives and the appearance of Kim Myong Gil in front of the embassy entrance.
So, one can suspect that the North Koreans came to the conclusion that they were not interested in negotiations well before they came to an end – perhaps before they actually started.
What can such an attitude mean for us? There are actually two ways to explain why the North Koreans rejected the U.S.’s proposals, whatever these conditions were.
At the current stage, both options are hypothetical, and, admittedly, they appear to be more or less equally plausible.
First, it is possible that the North Korean side really wants negotiations and compromise, as many observers, including myself, have said, but is merely going to use the uneasy situation of Donald Trump to squeeze even greater concessions from the United States.
The North Koreans have likely worked out that that they are not facing much of a military threat
If this is indeed the case, the North Koreans rejected the current U.S. approach in the hope that in due time, facing ever-growing domestic pressure, the Donald Trump administration will be willing to give them much more for the same price.
Another option is somewhat more pessimistic but, unfortunately, more or less equally likely. One could surmise that in the current situation, the North Koreans don’t feel much need to make a deal with the United States.
Indeed, the situation has changed considerably over the last year or so, and the world looks very different from what it was during the Singapore meeting in June last year.
The North Koreans have likely worked out that that they are not facing much of a military threat, since they suspect that Donald Trump might be all talk and no walk. They also know that China is going to keep them afloat no matter what.
If so, the entire goal of the negotiations is to win time, while also demonstrating to China that the North Koreans are still willing to find some solution to the problem in spite of the uncooperative stance taken by the Americans.
If the second option is indeed the case, talks in Stockholm were largely a show aimed, above all, to the audience in Beijing.
AFTER STOCKHOLM, WHAT?
So, what should we expect in the future? It’s still possible that the first hypothesis is correct, and that negotiations will resume.
After all, the North Korean officials, while making it clear that they are not going to meet the Americans in two weeks’ time, still suggested that the avenue for negotiations remain open – as long as the United States changes its position and presents them with greater concessions.
If this is indeed the case, we might hope that in a few months’ time negotiations will restart and, indeed, will eventually produce the type of compromise we have discussed before.
However, it’s more or less equally possible that for the time being, the idea of a deal with the United States is dead in Pyongyang.
The North Koreans have come to the conclusion that Donald Trump is much less dangerous than they initially thought.
With China covering their back, the North Koreans only see a little stick and almost no carrot
On top of that, they understand that no deal with Donald Trump, even a very favorable one, is likely to survive a possible change of administration in the United States since a Democratic president will probably treat Trump’s agreement with North Korea roughly the same way Trump treated Obama’s agreement with Iran (making any lasting and reliable deal with a democracy is a difficult task nowadays).
With China covering their back, the North Koreans only see a little stick and almost no carrot when it comes to dealing with the United States and they have decided to walk away.
If the last option is correct, in the relatively near future, we will be seeing more ICBM launches and maybe nuclear tests. The North Koreans now have fewer reasons to be afraid of anybody, except perhaps China. So, they will proceed with their nuclear and ICBM program much more openly.
This is not to say that they would not do it otherwise, but some smart U.S. diplomacy would have given us a few years of respite.
A deal remains possible, now but looks significantly less likely than just a week ago.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Preliminary working-level talks between North Korea and the United States, after many delays and false starts, were finally held in Stockholm this weekend, only to fall apart after eight hours.
On Saturday evening in front of his country's embassy in Stockholm, North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Myong Gil read aloud a short statement saying that the talks had ended in failure and, predictably,
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.