(Latest opinion in the South China Morning Post 4/27/19)
US President Donald Trump had been uncharacteristically quiet since his failed meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. That silence ended with a confused tweet at the end of last week overturning some unannounced, but apparently new, sanctions his Treasury Department was about to impose on Kim’s government.
The Treasury had announced new sanctions for several Chinese firms helping North Korea smuggle oil and coal, among other illicit activity. The White House assured us that reversing sanctions no one knew about was an olive branch because Trump still “likes” Kim.
While that’s a downgrade from the effusive love Trump professed earlier, it seems that he still wants to keep the door open for a possible resumption of talks.
Kim had also showed some restraint, at least at first. The official state newspaper, Rodung Sinmun, kept their rhetoric on simmer after the summit, blaming National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the failure, rather than Trump himself.
But there’s not much left to talk about on denuclearisation. If the goodwill expressed by both sides is going to lead anywhere, there needs to be something new, like normalising relations between the US and North Korea.
Trump claimed in last weeks’s State of the Union address that if it weren’t for him, the U.S. would be at war right now with North Korea. His self-praise for merely engaging the North telegraphed an eagerness for a deal that will be hard to justify should talks not deliver full and irreversible North Korean denuclearization.
Many now argue that North Korea will never give up their weapons and the U.S. should just accept that and move on, but the stakes are high for U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, the most susceptible to a North Korean provocation. If North Korea keeps its nuclear capability, Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, will certainly move to counter that threat, triggering a regional arms race.
There’s been precious little indication that Kim is willing to give up anything for another meeting with the U.S. President, a completely predictable outcome when Trump showed so much eagerness to meet in Singapore without a major breakthrough in talks.
A presidential meeting should only come after an agreement has been reached, not the other way around.
During the lapse in diplomacy since last summer’s Singapore summit, North Korea has been expanding its weapons program, not decreasing it. Recent reports and commercial satellite imagery show that the DPRK not only continued to build missiles, but there have far more weapon sites than previously disclosed.
While North Korea has not overtly tested a missile or engine system since talks began, even the most novice global affairs observer knows delays are not concessions. Kim can fire up a test whenever and wherever he wants. Blowing up wooden sheds and exploding a mountain entrance were, at best, window dressing.
Trump has been far more adept in his trade negotiations with China and refused to meet with Xi Jinping until more details are ironed out. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are headed to China soon.
By refusing to say he’ll meet with Xi until he finds out what happens in the latest round of negotiations he maintains his advantage. A presidential meeting should only come after an agreement has been reached, not the other way around.
Which begs the question, why did Trump commit to meeting Kim before his Special Envoy, Stephen Biegun, finished negotiating any of the numerous and contentious details? After Biegun returned from Pyongyang Trump officially announced his Feb. 27-28 visit to Hanoi, but preparations were already underway for that visit. One can only surmise that Kim understood he had the advantage.
Up for grabs are a litany of economic, political, and military gives including the minimal lifting of some U.S. sanctions, a declaration to formally end the Korea conflict, establishing an interest section or Embassy in Pyongyang, and at the extreme, a reduction in U.S. troops and/or weapons systems on the peninsula.
Additionally Trump has already said he wants a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but his vanity should not drive what may amount to a bad deal.
For any of these U.S. concessions, Trump must insist on full, verifiable denuclearization. Otherwise the bait-and-switch game will just go on while North Korea continues to build its arsenal. Transparency has always been the problem, and so far Kim has shown no more propensity to open his reclusive nation than his father or grandfather before him.
That may change if Kim is more interested in massive personal wealth and global recognition that followed Chinese and Vietnamese reform and opening. If so, Trump must press hard on eliminating the North’s ability to make and weaponize fissile material.
The worst thing that could happen in a real estate deal gone bad is bankruptcy. But an impulsive approach to high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea could mean risking regional and U.S. national security.
Update 2018 – Relations between North and South Korea have improved over the past year to the point where North Korea has now re-set its clocks to be in sync with its southern neighbor.
In yet another bizarre move by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, official time in Pyongyang will officially roll back 30 minutes on August 15th. While not unheard of in the annals of geopolitics (New Delhi and Islamabad diverge by half an hour as well), the move is a decidedly cold war maneuver that matters little to the rest of the world.
Re-jiggering airport information will be relatively easy with so few flights in and out of the capital. Train schedules need little adjustment considering the extremely limited service with China, its only ally (loosely defined).
Why is Kim asserting his right to bend the space-time continuum above the 38th parallel north to the Yalu and Tumen rivers? After executing high ranking leadership and family members it appears that he still needs a symbolic boost to assert a Kim 3.0 leadership. Harkening back to a World War II propaganda cliché he’s freeing North Koreans from the legacy of Japanese imperialism. Little else seems to have changed in the isolated and perpetually dark-after-dusk hermit kingdom.
If waking up to best of 1960’s-styled patriotic music on the government-controlled radio station weren’t enough, the capital’s citizens now sacrifice a ceremonial 30 minutes so the country can exist in a time zone of Kim’s own making.
Unfortunately this will do little to counter endemic poverty, international isolation and the ignominious title of being the only country left in the world still fighting a last century war (if the Iran nuclear deal actually goes through).
Arm-chair criticism aside some change is in the air. Reuters has an official Pyongyang bureau and even the North Korean embassy in Beijing, once a mysteriously inaccessible outpost, has opened its doors to journalists (no questions allowed during press briefings, however).
It looks like Kim wants to engage with the outside world, if only on his own terms and largely with the same missile-rattling and provocations marking over half a century of mistrust. Most recently North Korean soldiers planted wood cased landmines on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone resulting in two serious injuries to ROK soldiers.
And yet the Kaesong Industrial Complex keeps churning out near slave labor-produced goods where workers, despite agreements to the contrary, receive wages only from the North Korean government and not their South Korean employers.
Manic engagement remains the norm. Hard currency continues to flow north while the DPRK attacks one of its only business partners, no matter what time it is.
In homage to the title of this blog post here’s the 1969 hit by Chicago.
North Korea’s rounds of provocation tempered with inaction continue to challenge regional powers. Sanctions appear to have had little affect on the new regime, but perhaps some additional pressure from China, one of their last remaining allies, has put the fear of complete isolation into the minds of Pyongyang’s leadership. Now that the new Kim has shown his father’s generals he’s no push over maybe he’ll move on to the real work at hand – the economy. After closing Kaesong (one of the few legitimate hard currency earners for the regime) the North now wants to talk with South Korea about re-opening the joint project.
Nothing coming out of the DPRK should be taken at face value, of course – the propaganda machine sounding war drums, or conciliatory economic gestures. The regime still has a horrible human rights record, continues to pursue a nuclear capability and remains a card carrying member of the pariah states club (including Iran and Syria), but in the world of international diplomacy, where there’s more gray than black and white, it’s high time for some serious talk. Bilateral, multilateral, whatever works. Talk is cheap and it isn’t a reward for rattling the region, but it may just create an opening for Kim to try out a new tactic – engagement. Missile firings along with the capture of an American citizen have failed to gain him the audience he wants, except for a repeat visit by Dennis Rodman scheduled for August.
China’s New Law of the Sea – but Might Still Doesn’t Makes Right
Meanwhile, China’s “take first, ask questions later” approach to territorial disputes in the shared waters of East and Southeast Asia continues to rankle its neighbors. We’ve reached a new low in regional relations. What started out as fishing boat bravado has escalated dramatically into full-scale military involvement. Now the cat and mouse game plays out around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands with Japan upping the ante, and military budget, to confront an increasingly aggressive Chinese navy. Southeast Asia hasn’t fared much better. No agreement has been reached, despite diplomatic overtures for two years running, on how to resolve overlapping claims now completely subsumed under China’s self-claimed control.
Risks of accidental firings aside its now clear to everyone in the region that China’s “peaceful rise” has given way to a long rumored, now actualized policy of regional dominance. It might not be the Cold War part 2, but it certainly looks a lot like back-to-the-future with a new Chinese imperial sense of historical retribution for past colonial ills. The rest of the world has since moved on. Perhaps the “China Dream” should include a broader vision of regional integration without any one country needing to dominate.
Unfortunately for Asia the moment for a regional security architecture passed decades ago (about when NATO was formed and former aggressor states like Germany sat down with Britain and France). Now it’s left to the U.S. and its Asia pivot to cobble together long historical “frenemies” into a semi-cohesive whole. That attempt runs head long into China’s economic leverage that so far successfully divides the region (and ASEAN in particular) by holding trade hostage (from Philippine fruit imports that suddenly show signs of infestation to rare earth metals vital to Japan’s high-tech industry).
Countries are already trying to diversify their export markets and sourcing while the infinite promise of a large and expanding Chinese market comes under new strains. If cooler heads prevail, then the benefits of a cooperative future and greater regional integration will win out over a divisive re-playing of threats and counter-threats in the age-old struggle for power and control.
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Playing the same song (I was going to say record) over and over again gets old. And quoting oneself is lazy for a writer, but North Korea’s latest missile launch is so similar, in geopolitical terms, to its 2009 foray into the rocket business that I couldn’t help myself.
Sooner or later the regional pendulum will shift and the Kim regime, or some variant of its successors, will feel confident again through this recent display of relative military might. They will inevitably realize that talks are the best alternative among a rapidly diminishing set of options to achieve the security and recognition they crave.
A wave of international condemnation and UN paper threats followed the missile test in 2009. Since then North Korea has installed a new leader despite projections of regime failure should Kim the father pass away without a well established heir (he did, the regime didn’t). Myanmar, one of it’s few allies has reformed bringing a wave of new investment into that country. Iran remains isolated. China has a new leader. Re-joining the Six Party Talks never materialized despite the perennial famine outside the capital and a wave of more intense international sanctions.
North Korea, in the greater constellation of world affairs remains as isolated as ever, but surviving like always.
Longer-range missile capabilities do little to change the military balance in the region. A war, any war, would be devastating to both North and South Korea (due to short-range missiles that can destroy either country’s capitals within in minutes.)
While China has not taken a hard enough line to influence Pyongyang towards talks rather than demonstrations of military prowess perhaps new leader Xi Jinping will realize that this problem country on his border needs to wake up to progress in the rest of the world. Hope springs eternal, but hope is not a policy (and neither is waiting out the regime hoping it will collapse).
The rest of the world has been unable to curb if not stop altogether North Korea’s ability to test missiles. Visitors to Pyongyang have commented on the seemingly better life, relatively speaking, in the capital. Trade with China continues. While a minor threat to the world-at-large this latest missile test helps the new Kim demonstrate to his father’s generals that he too can defend the nation (even from fictitious enemies always on the ready to strike).
Perhaps he has finally earned his stripes and can now turn to more important matters like economic reform and opening.
If that were to happen the U.S. should be ready to talk starting with a simple gesture, say an invitation to the North Korean orchestra well after this latest missile test (renewed attention can’t be a reward). That closes the loop on the NY philharmonic visit to Pyongyang in 2008. Throw in a jazz concert at Lincoln Center for good measure.
North Korea returning to its de-nuclearization pledge as a precondition for any talks is a non-starter. An all-or-nothing approach has failed to achieve results. Start small and move on to the more difficult talks later. But find a reason to talk.
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Synopsis: Disney characters dancing on stage, women wearing short skirts, and a country’s new leader making speeches, smiling, and glad-handing military officers. In most places around the world, that’s nothing unusual. But for North Korea, it marks a sea change in image if not quite reality.
Political transition in Pyongyang has reached its apex with every major title bestowed on Kim Jong Un from head of the military to party boss. Despite concerns over a dynastic handover to the young and untested leader, purportedly just shy of 30 and apparently married, the regime didn’t collapse. The new Kim isn’t just continuing the family business of running a country. He’s a significant generational change, intended or not.
For the U.S., this tentative opening provides an opportune moment to re-engage with North Korea, but with a decidedly different approach. Back in 2008, the New York Philharmonic made a historic visit to Pyongyang and received a reserved, but warm reception. It was an opportunity to showcase the United States as non-enemy to a population fed on a steady stream of anti-American propaganda. The U.S. should now return the favor and invite North Korean musicians to New York.
Such a basic overture is neither reward nor acceptance of North Korea’s brutal human rights record, its brazen attacks on South Korean territory, or years of flaunting U.N. resolutions. It is a cautious, pragmatic step, nothing more. Ping-pong thawed U.S.-China Cold War enmity forty years ago. Perhaps a concerto or even a bit of jazz will do the trick this time around.