New US special representative to North Korea Steve Biegun speaks after being named by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, at the State Department in Washington DC, on August 23, 2018.A planned return trip by Pompeo was canned by the president shortly after. Photo: AFP / Nichola Kamm
New US special representative to North Korea Steve Biegun speaks after being named by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, at the State Department in Washington DC, on August 23, 2018. A planned return trip by Pompeo was canned by the president shortly after. Photo: AFP / Nichola Kamm

The promise of the Singapore summit is fast evaporating amid a lack of agreement between Pyongyang and Washington on denuclearization. While it is not clear if the process can get a reboot, or if a crisis will reoccur on the peninsula later this year, the US appears to have been out-maneuvered.

With US President Donald Trump having cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang in what appears to be an ineffectual tactical move, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stepped into the breach and suggested that he can act as an intermediary next month when he meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.

Given the gap between the two adversaries, that will be no easy task.

North Korean-US ties – which seemed so promising in June – appear to have run aground on the rocks of denuclearization. While Pyongyang demands reciprocal steps, such as a Korean War peace treaty and an easing of sanctions, the US insists that rewards can only come after denuclearization, not during it.

Frustration on both sides

Frustration is apparent on both sides. On Sunday, an editorial in Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper alleged that the US was “busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” Reuters reported. The newspaper said the US was holding war drills with Japan that planned “infiltration into Pyongyang.” While the US has indefinitely halted war games with South Korea, it continues to hold exercises with other allies.

That propaganda blast followed Trump’s order to Pompeo last Friday to cancel his upcoming trip to Pyongyang, which had been expected this week. Trump cited lack of progress on North Korean denuclearization, and a renewed focus on trade issues with China, for his command.

In recent weeks, a flurry of reports and satellite-image analyses have suggested that work continues at major North Korean nuclear facilities, while the nascent dismantling of a missile-engine test site – a move Kim verbally promised Trump in Singapore – has been halted.

One expert put the ongoing stalemate down to Trump’s eagerness to break with past failed approaches toward North Korea and launch face-to-face talks with Kim without doing sufficient advance groundwork. “I don’t think denuclearization has even left the ground, I don’t think it has started,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher with Seoul’s Asan Institute. “This is the downside to having a summit before agreeing on the very basic definitions of denuclearization. They are so far apart on the most basic concepts.”

Another expert was more upbeat, but admitted matters are fraught. “We are in the middle of a tug of war between Pyongyang and Washington,” said Sun Ki-young a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “We have been watching the North Korean willingness to denuclearize for the purpose of concentration on economic development, and this is a strategic decision, no doubt.” However, Pyongyang is, “thinking about the proper conditions to swap the start of the denuclearization process with regime security measures by Washington,” he continued. “It will take a bit more time than expected.”

These developments have apparently prompted Moon to redouble his efforts to mediate. “Objectively, [President Moon’s] role as a facilitator and mediator to help expand the range of mutual understanding between the US and North Korea has become greater,” a presidential spokesman told reporters on Sunday, according to Yonhap newswire.

Moon will travel to Pyongyang for his third summit with Kim in September. Chinese President Xi Jinping will also reportedly make his first trip to North Korea next month.

Washington’s leverage runs out

Pompeo wants Pyongyang to hand over a list of its nuclear assets as the first stage in denuclearization. He is unlikely to get it. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, likened the presentation of such a list to the US as “…like providing a list of targets for the US Air Force to bomb,” should relations deteriorate.

Trump’s order to Pompeo to desist from his visit may have stemmed from a realization that the Secretary of State, who returned home empty-handed from his last trip, would suffer the same result this time. Hence as a ploy, Trump called off a negotiation to spook the counter-party into a concession. This worked before, but is unlikely to work now.

“Trump decided to apply the tactic he used a couple of months ago, when he suddenly cancelled the [Singapore] summit,” Lankov said, referring to Trump’s surprise cancellation – a move which apparently panicked Kim, who sought an unplanned summit with Moon the following day in an attempt to get his summit with the US leader back on track.

“It seems to me that some people in the administration hope the trick can work again, but back then, everybody was afraid that the US might start shooting,” Lankov continued. “That is not the case anymore, so the North Koreans are probably shrugging their shoulders. They are not terrified now.”

Hindering aggression by Trump is domestic circumstance, as a radical shift on North Korea would fly in the face of assurances given to his supporters. “Trump is not in a political position to contradict what he has said so far about the success of negotiations,” Go said. “He cannot declare out of the blue that it is a failure. This is the best he can do with the constraints he has with the November [mid-term] elections.”

Daggers drawn between Beijing, Washington

In terms of a global united front against Kim, Trump’s position has also weakened. In late 2017, a combination of threats – the possibility of US military action against Pyongyang, and an apparent willingness by Beijing to enforce sanctions – were factors driving Kim to take a surprisingly conciliatory stance in 2018, Lankov said. But that leverage has now gone.

“Denuclearization was always a pipe dream, but a massive reduction of the North Korean missile force was possible,” the Russian expert said. “But the unwillingness or inability of the US side to make a meaningful agreement in Singapore, combined with Trump’s decision to initiate a trade war with China, have wiped out any hope. The situation is unfixable.”

Beijing not only has no incentive to crack down hard on Pyongyang, it has revived a cross-border lifeline. “The Americans have done everything to provoke China into taking a softer stance on North Korea – probably not a complete u-turn; most likely China will pay lip service to sanctions, and will encourage large companies not to deal with North Korea – but China has a long border that is a smugglers paradise,” Lankov said. “To stop it, China would have to invest a lot of money, resources, police and military personnel. They did for a while, but not now.”

Policy drift between Seoul and Washington

Yet another factor restricting Washington’s freedom of action is the new reality on the ground, where North and South Korea are rapidly expanding cross-border projects.

The two are fielding a joint team at the Asiad – winning a gold medal Sunday in Dragon boat racing – and have just ended a week-long reunion of divided families. South Korea seeks to create an inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, which lies just across the De-Militarized Zone directly north of Seoul, and wants to start work on railway reconnections by the end of this year.

As a result, Moon’s brain trust is hard at work. “The South Korean government is still considering the key message of President Moon when he visits Pyongyang in September,” said KINU’s Sun. “But the basic position of the government is that Moon’s role as a facilitator is going up, rather than down, as a result of President Trump’s announcement of Pompeo not going to Pyongyang.”

For inter-Korean reconciliation to bear fruit, Moon needs peace and at least a partial lifting of sanctions. Hence, the PR coming out of Seoul is likely to be positive, going forward, whatever the reality.

“The South Korean government will work hard to produce a rosy picture of the situation even if it is bad as it gets,” said Lankov. “It will be spin doctoring on steroids.” This could cause irritations in the bilateral alliance. “If Trump goes back to a hard line, it is not going to be appreciated by Moon,” Lankov continued. “Most likely, he will do what he can to gloss over existing problems, but there are limits in how big a crack you can plaster over.”

Factors against US strike, but concerns persist

Thankfully for Moon (and Kim), Trump’s options are limited. Kim can – without offering major concessions – refrain from provocations, thereby limiting Trump’s room for military maneuvers. In this light, Lankov believes that Kim’s near-term goal is to survive the unorthodox Trump presidency. “Their strategy is to win time until Donald ‘The Unpredictable’ Trump moves out of the White House,” he said.

Go goes further, insisting that Pyongyang’s long game is proceeding according to plan. “Kim has been more successful than he probably expected: His idea is to somehow make the status quo last as long as possible, so he won’t engage in rash actions which would give Trump an excuse,” said Go. “He will strengthen relations with China and South Korea to show the rest of the world that his is a de-facto nuclear state, and the world will see a ‘well-behaving rogue state.’”

The overall strategy, Go believes, is for the world to eventually “accommodate this new, normal North Korea.”

For Washington to launch a military strike over the objections of Seoul would likely plunge the bilateral alliance into its greatest crisis since 1953. Yet, even if Trump did cast diplomacy to the winds and launch a Syrian-style limited strike, his chances of inflicting lasting damage are minimal.

“Trump does not want to plunge into a massive shooting war, he basically wants to limit force even if he uses it; he will think about TV pictures, not results,” said Lankov. “He will send something to bomb some remote launch pad of little significance; the North Koreans will remove a few dead bodies of common soldiers that nobody in Pyongyang cares about and probably hush up the entire event – or present it in a favorable light and claim victory.”

So for the next few months, risks look set to remain on a low level on the peninsula. But even analysts who believe Trump has been outplayed are concerned that, post-November, Washington will reassess his approach. And that will likely raise a new range of perils.

“There will be more bellicose talk from Washington. It is already coming. But as long as North Korea does not give an excuse, there is not much Washington can do at this point,” said Go. “What I am more worried about is some fallout from the November elections. That might give North Korea some wrong ideas and might lead to a different cycle.”

“Trump is now stimulating North Korean fears about unpredictability after the mid-terms, and this is part of the game,” Sun added. “To my knowledge, this is one of the reasons why Pyongyang is reluctant to report their nuclear materials. I am a bit concerned.”

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