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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
With U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment saga having drawn to a close, we find ourselves already one-and-a-half months into the new year.
Some may recall the various dismal scenarios that were being predicted, but there is now relief that, in the end, nothing came of them.
Now that this chapter seems to have closed, and bad memories of this time fade away, the door is potentially open for something new. So, what are the chances for the resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. in this new atmosphere?
WITH IMPEACHMENT OVER, OLD QUESTIONS RESURFACE
It was last year on August 12 when a whistleblower from the intelligence community filed a complaint in which they accused the President of misconduct. Over a month later, on September 24, speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi finally decided to begin impeachment proceedings.
Other issues were eclipsed by the President’s impeachment, the denuclearization of North Korea being one of them. Even though there were a couple of developments between the two sides, including October’s working-level negotiations in Stockholm, no progress was made.
The situation deteriorated further with a series of warnings and threats from North Korean officials around the end of the year.
After six months of fighting, the U.S. Senate wrapped up the impeachment trial on February 5 with the announcement of the President’s acquittal.
Donald Trump won the war against impeachment — now he needs to go back and take a look at the work he was doing last summer.
Will he take on the issue of North Korea and have another summit with Chairman Kim Jong Un? Maybe. Or maybe not.
One could reasonably assume that the President would not return to these past issues because he has a bigger challenge coming up: the presidential election in November. This will be a big challenge for Mr. Trump, and he will put many more resources into this task than in anything he has done thus far.
According to a report by CNN, the President told his advisors that he does not want another summit with the North Korean Chairman before the election. The piece says that he was disappointed by the collapse of the talks in Stockholm.
Judging by this, dialogue won’t be revived and we may as well forget the North Korean issue.
Mr. Trump may, however, be more interested in North Korea if he thinks that denuclearization could be a good issue for his presidential campaign. After all, he often contrasts his progress on the problem with former President Barack Obama’s lack of achievement.
If the North Korean side makes some signals toward proactive negotiation, it may be fair to assume that the President could move back to his policy of engagement.
Donald Trump won the war against impeachment — now he needs to go back and take a look at the work he was doing last summer
Improvements domestically could also influence Mr. Trump’s direction. According to Gallup polling released February 4, the President’s approval rating is now at 49%, the highest it has been since he took office in 2017.
Domestic pressure had influenced the President’s decision not to sign on a denuclearization agreement about a year ago in Hanoi. With confidence in his situation at home and prospects for reelection, there is the possibility that the President could push ahead with one more summit and finish negotiations.
KIM DISAPPOINTED, BUT STILL WAITING
If President Trump proposes another summit, would Chairman Kim respond in the affirmative? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Kim may decline, since he lost hope through his previous frustrating dealings with the U.S. And, of course, he announced at the year-end plenum that the aggressive “head-on breakthrough” line should be the country’s major slogan, in order to overcome a myriad of difficulties including economic sanctions.
However, this does not mean that he has decided not to talk to the U.S. under any circumstances. On the contrary, it may indicate that he still wants a deal, since he did not officially break the promises he made to Mr. Trump like lots of experts predicted he would.
It is even possible to interpret North Korea’s series of threats in November and December as desperate diplomatic attempts to extract big grants from the U.S. Such efforts failed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have given up dealing with this rare breed of U.S. president.
After all, even though the Chairman suggested the possibility of some ‘shocking actions’ or ‘new strategic weapons,’ it is important to note that North Korea has not taken any provocative measures since the beginning of the new year.
This could indicate that he is still holding the door open for dialogue with the U.S. — if Mr. Trump presents him with an attractive enough deal.
In the U.S., there is not much demand for another summit
FACILITATOR NON GRATA
While there is the possibility that Mr. Kim accepts a proposal from Mr. Trump for another summit, positive vibes from the leaders alone will not be sufficient.
In the U.S., there is not much demand for another summit. The President cannot be too aggressive pushing another meeting if Mr. Kim does not show signs of comprehensive denuclearization.
Mr. Trump’s disinterest in another summit with Mr. Kim without this, as reported in the aforementioned CNN article, is a rational position to take. The President may feel that he could risk the election in November by pushing ahead with a so-called ‘small deal’ with North Korea.
Similarly, it would be almost impossible for Chairman Kim to go back to the negotiating table while the U.S. still maintains its ‘hostile policies’ against his country.
With the chances of another summit quite low, a facilitator will be required to bring the two together again.
With its demand for denuclearization efforts, South Korea could again play this facilitating role.
Seoul was a fantastic facilitator in 2018. There were stories that during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the U.S. and North Korea exchanged positive messages and gestures with proactive help from the South.
South Korea suggested the idea of a summit between the U.S. and North Korea, and the idea was adopted by both their leaders. South Korea also facilitated the next round of summitry in Hanoi in February 2019, and significantly contributed to the meeting at Panmunjom in June.
However, Seoul went down in the estimations of Pyongyang after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. Chairman Kim felt bitter because he judged that President Moon Jae-in did not try his best — or simply failed — in persuading Mr. Trump of sanctions relief in return for destroying the nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
South Korea became something of a persona non grata to the North, and Seoul’s room to act as a facilitator in the future was subsequently severely contracted.
Since the impeachment saga, Mr. Moon has become an almost forgotten friend to Mr. Trump.
But even if Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump were interested in the suggestion from Mr. Moon for another summit, the South Korean President’s domestic position would not support such a move.
He has become diplomatically isolated, having failed to cultivate friends and supporters from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, or the diplomatic expert community in Korea.
To sum up, dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea is still possible, yes — but the chances are minuscule.
While demand for dialogue is low in both Washington and Pyongyang though, it is quite high in Seoul. So the real determining factor in the resumption of U.S.-DPRK talks will be the strategy and performance of President Moon Jae-in.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham