Why U.S.-North Korea talks in Sweden fell apart — and what might happen next
The DPRK has not fully shut the door on further talks, but the gap between the two sides appears wider than ever
Update: North Korea late on Sunday said negotiations with the U.S. would not resume until Washington conducts a “complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy” threatening DPRK security and preventing its economic development.
The first working-level DPRK-U.S. talks to have taken place since the Hanoi summit ended on Saturday with a deeply negative North Korean portrayal of events, but a guarded and somewhat positive American description of the discussions.
While the DPRK side did not reject further working-level talks with the U.S. outright, it did not appear to embrace a Swedish proposal for the two countries to meet again in two weeks time.
Overall, statements by the two countries suggest that a major perception gap on how to implement the Singapore declaration remains, with the North appearing unwilling to accept anything short of major U.S. concessions to overcome the current impasse.
Stockholm: A gulf in expectations
Analysis of remarks issued in the wake of the Stockholm meeting and in the lead-up to the encounter provide details about where things went wrong and what each country was likely expecting.
In a nutshell, it appears the DPRK side had been looking forward to details of major U.S. concessions and, effectively, an American realization that its post-Singapore strategy had been unfit for purpose.
But from the U.S. perspective, it seems that negotiators instead had hopes to secure commitments relating to practical steps towards denuclearization ahead of any major concessions being provided.
Kim Myong Gil, the DPRK’s point-person in Stockholm, said talks “failed to produce any results” because the U.S. “has not discarded its old stance and attitude,” according to a Yonhap translation published on Sunday.
Kim suggested that prior to Stockholm the U.S. had indicated it would be willing to pursue the meeting in a “flexible approach”– a probable nod to President Trumps’ recent remarks about approaching the issue with a “new method.”
However, despite North Korea’s “heightened expectations” of the talks, Kim said that the U.S. “came out with nothing, greatly disappointed us and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”
So what had the DPRK side been expecting from the talks?
Though no transcript is yet available of Kim’s full remarks, a Korean language Yonhap News report revealed other points not included in English language coverage.
Firstly, it appears that the DPRK side was expecting gestures from the U.S. to recognize steps it had already taken, such as its ongoing and self-declared nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test moratoria.
“The U.S. should sincerely respond to our actions taken for denuclearization in advance, to build trust,” Kim said. North Korean state media have often alluded to the idea that steps the DPRK took ahead of and following the Singapore summit have been insufficiently recognized by the U.S. and it appears this still remains the case.
Secondly, Kim said that the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” would only be possible when “all the barriers to our development and threats to our safety are completely and undoubtedly removed.”
That echoed a statement attributed to a senior North Korean official in mid-September, which suggested that even the possibility of mere “discussion on denuclearization” would only be possible once “threats and obstacles that endanger the security of our system and hamper development are removed clearly and unquestionably”.
In context of the mid-September statement, Kim’s remark suggests the DPRK was expecting some form of sanctions relief (reversing the “barriers to…development”) and concrete gestures in the security domain (nullifying the “threats to our safety”) as the practical articulation of Trump’s “new calculation” in Sweden.
But from Kim’s other remarks, it appears the U.S. was unprepared to offer major gestures in advance of concrete actions on the North Korean side. “The U.S. came to the negotiations empty-handed and this, after all, shows it is not willing to solve the issue,” he said.
Furthermore, Kim explained that “the argument that our survival and right to development can be secured when we need to give up the nuclear deterrence first, while the U.S. threat remains, is like putting the cart in front of the horse.”
In particular, this suggests that American negotiators were unwilling to offer any major concessions ahead of North Korea committing to practical steps towards denuclearization.
What, then, were the U.S. proposals in Stockholm and why did they fail?
While State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus rejected the negative North Korean narrative of the “8 ½ hour discussion” and said the two countries had “good discussions,” she provided little detailed information about the U.S. proposals to the North.
Noting that the two countries had “reviewed events since the Singapore summit and discussed the importance of more intensive engagement to solve the many issues of concern,” Ortagus simply said the U.S. delegation previewed “a number of new initiatives that would allow us to make progress in each of the four pillars of the Singapore joint statement”.
(NK Pro understood from informed sources ahead of the talks that the U.S. was willing to offer sanctions relief to the DPRK, but on a snapback mechanism that would see them automatically reinstated in the event P5 countries were not in agreement that the North remained in compliance with its denuclearization commitments.)
Although details of the U.S. proposals were not provided, it’s clear they fell well short of North Korean expectations to gain major concessions as a way of breaking the impasse.
But while Trump’s remarks surrounding a “new method” may have led Pyongyang to believe the U.S. was shifting its strategy, recent comments by senior officials responsible for the North Korea portfolio suggested otherwise.
Indeed, remarks by U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in September implied that the two countries still clearly see phasing the provision of concessions and steps towards denuclearization in polar opposite ways.
In particular, Biegun said that for the U.S. to “make progress towards peace” and “take major steps towards transforming our relationship,” the DPRK “must be willing to fulfil its commitment to achieve complete denuclearization.”
Noting that the North will “never be able to realize its full economic potential or enjoy true security and stability if it clings to weapons of mass destruction,” Biegun’s remarks implied that the U.S. would have been unwilling to offer the DPRK major and/or irreversible concessions relating to sanctions relief or security ahead of major steps towards denuclearization/missile control.
Biegun’s September remarks – and those issued by Ortagus on Sunday – instead appear to imply that Washington believes the momentum and scope of working-level talks must increase first.
“The most important step we can take is for the United States and North Korea to work together to overcome the policies and demonstrations of hostility that compromise the simple ability of our diplomats to talk and to sustain the rhythm of negotiations,” Biegun said in September.
“We must set in motion an intensive set of negotiations,” he added. “Only if we do that will we be able to fulfill the commitments of our leaders and the desires of our respective peoples for peace.”
With Ortagus hinting that Biegun’s position remains unchanged, observing that the two “will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility … through the course of a single Saturday” – there ultimately appears to be a fundamental mismatch in how the two countries see a way forward.
Stockholm has ended without a firm date being agreed for the two sides to meet again. With the DPRK taking over three months to engage in talks despite Trump and Kim agreeing to start them within weeks on June 30, there is no guarantee the two sides will meet again soon.
In explaining North Korea’s view of the talks, Kim said that “we advised the U.S. to stop the negotiation and think more by the end of the year,” noting it is “completely up to the U.S. … whether to admit the reason for why this DPRK-U.S. negotiation failed and fix to resume the dialogue, or, completely shut down the dialogue.”
As a result, the DPRK has not fully shut the door for further talks.
But ahead of what is likely to be a bumpy election campaign for Trump in 2020, it appears that the North may be hoping that the combined effect of the ticking clock and American fears of long-range missile and nuclear tests in the year ahead will stimulate a significant shift in U.S. strategy at the eleventh hour.
Having tested a new solid-fuel and unambiguously nuclear-capable missile just days before the Stockholm talks, it is possible, then, that North Korea will conduct additional weapons tests to sharpen the strategic choice it wants the Trump administration to take.
While this might seem a risky strategy for the North – the idea of the White House suddenly capitulating to DPRK demands seems remote, even with the absence of John Bolton – recent evidence suggests North Korea may not be as desperate for a deal with the U.S. as many may think in Washington.
So long as Pyongyang can keep China on its side in the weeks and months ahead, North Korea will be in a good position to cement its nuclear weapons status next year while enjoying modest economic growth from its ever-warming relations with Beijing.
While a deal with the U.S. could pave the way for wide-ranging sanctions relief and more independence from China, a preferable set of outcomes for the North, it seems clear that Pyongyang expects major concessions from the U.S. before it makes any further moves towards denuclearization.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Mariamichelle
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