The rosy detente established between North and South Korea during and after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is fading fast. Recent developments that could dramatically affect the upcoming summit between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and American President Donald Trump, set for June 12 in Singapore, have been a wake-up call.
Within the last several days, rhetoric out of Pyongyang has turned suddenly harsh, while the stance taken by Washington has become more hard-line.
Although Kim Jong-un reportedly accepted the need for joint South Korean-US military exercises, the on-going combined aerial exercise Max Thunder has caused Pyongyang to cancel high-level talks scheduled between Pyongyang and Seoul. North Korea is also upset that the United States has brought up the North’s human rights record, claiming such action poisons the atmosphere for sincere talks.
The United States is also demanding that all of North’s nuclear material – and even its nuclear engineers – leave the country. Washington also expects a complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization – CVID. The two countries, though, have different thoughts on exactly what that means.
Moreover, Trump’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton keeps referring to the “Libyan model” to denuclearize the North. Bolton’s choice of wording could hardly be more inflammatory. Pyongyang certainly remembers that the Libyan dictator did relinquish his nascent nukes, only to be later hunted down and killed by US-backed rebels.
Who is to blame?
The history of dealing with Pyongyang illustrates the need for cynicism and caution. However, once Seoul fervently claimed that Kim’s offer to denuclearize was honest and sincere, it became politically problematic for Trump to decline a summit with Kim.
The intemperate optimism put forth by Seoul regarding what some officials thought they heard from the North resulted in unrealistic expectations from the summit between Washington and Pyongyang. Further, there is no doubt that the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is highly motivated to get Kim and Trump to the table, even if it takes a bit of subterfuge.
Trump, who sees himself as the quintessential deal-maker, quickly accepted Kim’s offer without scrutiny or other consideration. The result is that the optimism fed on itself until, after months of playing nice, Pyongyang reverted to type, engaging in provocative rhetoric to improve its bargaining position once it felt Washington had committed itself to a summit.
Trump’s response to all this has been uncharacteristically muted. Unfortunately, rather than let US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak for the administration, he appears to have permitted Bolton to make public statements that undermine the summit, and could result in it being cancelled altogether.
After all, it was Bolton who openly bragged about how he derailed the 1994 talks, the Agreed Framework. Perhaps, though, Bolton is playing the role of bad cop to Pompeo’s good cop: It is Pompeo who made trips to Pyongyang and reportedly established working relations with Kim.
Tactical maneuvers or strategic U-turn?
The recent change in Pyongyang’s attitude and rhetoric is a typical negotiating ploy. The North is attempting to control the summit agenda by making threats if certain topics are brought up and is trying to enhance its negotiating position by taking an initial tough stance. We should know this, for past behavior clearly establishes North Korea as devious and treacherous.
This risk is compounded by the failure of Washington’s diplomats and negotiators to choose words carefully. One example is a recent statement by Pompeo that replaced the phrase CVID with PVID, the word complete being replaced by permanent. Strikingly, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha – who speaks fluent, indeed, eloquent English – claims the two phrases mean the same thing.
They are most emphatically not equivalent, and Kang likely recognizes this but is attempting to obfuscate the difference. To begin, the word irreversible in CVID already connotes permanence so there is no need to use the word permanent. Moreover, PVID eliminates the word complete, a very significant change.
Could that have been a furtive attempt to lower expectations about denuclearization, as in “just get rid of some of your nukes and we will call it good enough?” Given the factors at play, it is feasible. We know how central nuclear arms are to North Korea; it even codified its existence as a nuclear power in its constitution in 2012.
Moreover, Kim would have a difficult time explaining to his impoverished people that their sacrifices over the years as Pyongyang developed its “treasured sword” have been in vain. Too much effort and too many resources have been expended in becoming a nuclear power, only to give it up because the US demands it.
Realistic goals or a way out?
Robert Gallucci, the top US negotiator during the 1994 talks, committed a heresy of sorts when he recently openly admitted that the CVID was a “pile of political crap.” He explained that the US demand for all nuclear materials to be removed from North Korea would be impossible to verify – and would be unenforceable even if verification were possible. To expect Pyongyang’s thousands of nuclear experts to leave the country is also unrealistic – even inhumane.
If Washington continues to demand the impossible, it is setting the stage for failure. However, both countries need some sort of deal.
Kim wants a phased agreement in order to gain sanctions relief and economic assistance until the sanctions regime has been ameliorated. But according to Trump, there will be no sanctions relief until the CVID/PVID has been achieved.
Trump needs success for political and egotistical reasons: To establish himself as the only one who was able to negotiate effectively with a Kim. And even though the summit has yet to be held, it has already yielded some success: US hostages have been released and tensions in the region have been reduced – albeit perhaps only temporarily. Moreover, the North is disabling its nuclear test site, even though that might be an empty gesture due to the site being overused to the point of being dangerous.
In spite of all the bellicose rhetoric and the impossible demands, there will likely be a summit. And when it does come to pass, it will likely be declared “huge, the greatest success possible!”
It just won’t be the CVID.
Whatever the result, the language chosen by the US had better be bullet-proof and air-tight. If not, that putative success will quickly turn into another “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” episode.
Washington has been fooled so often by Pyongyang that the accrued shame, to coin an apt pun, has reached critical mass.