Nobody expected a rapprochement between the United States and North Korea would be easy. And few likely expected China to take advantage of the diplomatic opening to further advance its geo-strategic interests in region.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent setback in Pyongyang, where North Korean state media effectively referred to America’s top diplomat’s overtures as “gangsterism”, showed that’s the case on both fronts.
The US and North Korea, of course, are still technically at war and it was only a few months ago that US President Donald Trump branded North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a madman. Kim retorted by referring to Trump as “incurably mentally deranged.”
Such calumny and slight was set aside when Kim and Trump met for a historic summit in Singapore in June. But Pyongyang’s inimitable anti-US rhetoric was back on the vitriolic airwaves after Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang earlier this month.
On July 7, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) lashed out against what it called Pompeo’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” which it said ran “counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks.”
The statement came after Pompeo, who notably did not meet with Kim during his highly anticipated visit, had said the talks were “productive” and that significant progress had been made “in every element.”
The following day, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham blamed China for the debacle, saying “I see China’s hand all over this. We’re in a fight with China.” Graham linked North Korea’s statement to the intensifying trade war between US and China.
Trump followed up with tweets critical of China’s role in the debacle, saying in a heated post: “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade – Hope Not!”
While both Trump and Graham are likely right that Beijing had a hand in North Korea’s recalcitrant statement on Pompeo, the turn is likely part of a wider strategy to supplant America’s geopolitical dominance in Asia rather than a reaction to the tiff on tariffs.
A breakdown in the still incipient US-North Korea talks could drive a diplomatic wedge between the US and South Korea, where hopes are high for a normalization of relations between the two long-separated Koreas.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is known to want a formal peace treaty with the North, one that will pave the way for other agreements on trade and bilateral cooperation. After Pompeo’s visit, that prospect in the short-term again looks remote, and many South Korean policymakers are likely to blame the US for the reversal.
In May, Chang Dong Young, who served as unification minister in a previous government and is currently a lawmaker, openly blamed hardline US National Security Adviser John Bolton for problems in talks between the various players with interests on the Korean peninsula.
Such criticism has been muted since the Trump-Kim Singapore summit but could easily flare up again with North Korea’s apparent return to confrontational official rhetoric.
North Korea’s reaction to Pompeo’s visit also underlined the fundamentally different interpretations of the purpose of the talks. The US wants North Korea to comply with a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” before lifting sanctions and normalizing bilateral relations.
The North, on the other hand, wants a formal declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Such an accord, signed by the signatories of the 1953 armistice – with North Korea and China’s so-called “volunteer forces” on one side and US-led United Nations forces on the other – would give Pyongyang the recognition and prestige it desires and in its ideal scenario pave the way for the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula.
North Korea still sees weapons of mass destruction as its only life insurance. Leaders in Pyongyang are cognizant of the US-orchestrated violent overthrows of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
After Trump’s backtracking on his predecessor Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, there is little reason why Pyongyang would trust Washington’s promises of “security guarantees” in exchange for denuclearization.
Indeed, there are no signs yet that North Korea is moving in that direction. 38 North, a website dedicated to Korean Peninsula analysis run by the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, reported on June 21 that commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s missile engine-testing Sohae Satellite Launching Station near the Chinese border shows “no apparent activity related to dismantlement.”
The report appeared to contradict Trump’s post-Singapore summit tweets that, in apparent reference to Sohae, said North Korea is “destroying their engine site. They’re blowing it up.”
Other satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has finished work on a secondary cooling system for its five megawatt reactor at the nuclear research center situated at Yongbyon north of Pyongyang.
According to 38 North, “the North’s nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang.”
China’s leading role in the US-North Korean diplomatic dance became obvious when in March Kim made his first foreign trip since taking power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Until then, many observers felt that the younger Kim had deliberately avoided visiting China.
In May, Kim made a second surprise trip to China ahead of his Singapore summit with Trump. Few missed the symbolism of Kim arriving and departed from Singapore aboard an Air China jet plane.
While Beijing says it’s committed to peace on the Korean peninsula, any deal will need to meet its terms. The Global Times, a daily tabloid under the auspicious of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said in a June 4 op-ed that China’s involvement in any deal to formally end the Korean conflict was essential, otherwise it would be invalid and could be overturned.
KCNA’s reference to Pompeo’s demands as “gangsterism” made clear that Pyongyang wants much more than just the suspension of joint US-South Korean military exercises, which Trump announced after the Singapore summit before substantive talks can advance, to start dismantling its nuclear deterrent.
KCNA referred to Trump’s suspension of the joint exercises as “highly reversible” and that the drills could be “resumed anytime at any moment” without “scraping even a rifle.” So why should North Korea unilaterally give up its arsenal of nuclear weapons in exchange for nothing more than vague US promises of security guarantees?
According to an April statement by South Korean leader Moon, North Korea had dropped its demand for the withdrawal of the 28,000 US troops now stationed in South Korea as a precondition for its denuclearization.
In light of recent events and rhetoric – and in the absence of any official statement directly from Pyongyang – that pledge can no longer be taken at face value. Indeed, the KCNA statement cryptically said that “it seems that the US misunderstood our goodwill and patience.”
China has also long desired for US troops to leave South Korea. The US, on the other hand, has maintained that the withdrawal of its troops is a non-starter, though North Korea and China will argue that the troops would need to leave as part of any final peace agreement.
If no such agreement materializes and Washington is blamed by Seoul for the failure, it could possibly lead to more interaction between China and South Korea in pursuit of alternative avenues out of the decades-long stand-off between the two Korean states.
That divide-and-rule agenda could explain why North Korea’s mouthpiece media undiplomatically referred to Pompeo’s overtures as “gangsterism”, while the American diplomat maintained after his Pyongyang visit that the denuclearization talks were still on track.