Donald Trump with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi summit talks in February 2019. Photo: AFP

International-relations pros watching Northeast Asia may be forgiven for a sense of deja vu. A pattern is emerging on North Korea-US relations. One the one hand, Kim Jong Un dangles carrots – such as Friday’s “beautiful” letter to his counterpart, US President Donald Trump – while also brandishing his stick – short-range missile tests – such as his hefting of a brace of missiles into the Sea of Japan on Saturday morning. Trump, for his part, praises Kim’s letter-writing skills, but brushes off the missile tests.

How does this pattern move the pieces on the strategic chessboard? As far as can be seen, not much.

Since the failure of February’s Hanoi summit to reach a deal, and despite this summer’s Kim-Trump photo op in the DMZ truce village of Panmunjom, there has been no concrete progress between the two sides despite the good vibes that seem to unite the two leaders. And while Trump seems willing to play the waiting game, Kim is running out of both options and time.

Dashed hopes

The Kim-Trump relationship has become a nexus of regional peace hopes after decades of hostilities marked by not a single leader-to-leader meeting. Certainly, with North Korea being less a one-party, more a one-man state, where the closed-door decision-making takes place in small circles – the reigning Kim, informed by a close cabal of trusted advisers – Trump’s decision to meet with Kim offered the chance of a breakthrough. Given so many failures by working-level negotiators over the decades to reach any kind of modus vivendi beyond a tense and uneasy strategic status quo, the possibilities of the two leaders indulging in facers ignited long-dormant hopes.

After last year’s Singapore summit, most talk was of denuclearization, plus a Korean War peace treaty and improved Pyongyang-Washington relations. But this year, while chatter about denuclearization continues relentlessly (if a little hopelessly), Pyongyang’s negotiating aim appears to have shifted away from peace moves and toward sanctions relief.

That, however, is one area where Trump – perhaps wisely – has stood firm. Some criticize the US president for demanding an end-result (that is, denuclearization) before offering in-process concessions (that is, sanctions relief). And indeed, Trump may be lacking in diplomatic finesse and strategic brilliance; his self-identity is as a negotiator, based on his pre-presidential years in business. But in that role at least, he seems to understand the power of leverage.

This presents Kim with a dual problem.

Rocks and hard places

The young neo-monarch has, on numerous occasions, pledged to upgrade his people’s standard of living. And in that he has some grounds for optimism.

One heritage of his father’s ruinous reign was marketization. Amid killer famines in the 1990s, desperate North Koreans turned to China trade to survive, bartering anything they had for food and medicine. The markets survived the famines, upgraded to to total-consumer goods emporia, and brought new levels of discipline and competency to what had been a disastrously mismanaged economy. For the average North Korean, the markets have replaced the long-imploded state distribution system as their leading source of goods.

Moreover, the economy continues to advance. Indications are that the key players in the North Korean economy – the donju (“money masters” – that is, the key investors) are now shifting from trade to manufacturing, producing goods for domestic consumption.

Yet no economy – even North Korea’s – is an island. The heavy sanctions imposed since 2016 are now, according to multiple reports and sourcing, biting. It is hugely difficult now for any player to shift money into or out of North Korea without incurring the wrath of the US Treasury. Moreover, flow of goods into North Korea is also heavily sanctions and over-watched.

Hence the dual problem.

First: Kim has made public promises of economic betterment, which he is not honoring, and at the same time, he is likely beholden to the top donju. (It is far from clear how tightly he is beholden, but even his own wife, Ri Sol Ju, is believed to be a donju – indicating how tightly entangled the political elite and the new monied class are.)

Second: Even though he is most assuredly in charge of his military, he cannot ignore factions. This, some suggest, means Kim may very well be facing pressure from his hawks. So far, his new global engagement policy, as announced in his New Year’s Day speech of 2018, has delivered very little beyond photo ops with world leaders (Trump being the most high-profile, but also including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Moon Jae-in). Sanctions remain in place.

Some pundits believe that hawks are arguing for a more aggressive policy – hence Kim’s repeated barrages of short-range ballistic missiles and even multiple-launch rocket system missiles in recent weeks. Why now?

That is easy. The US and South Korea summer military drills are a red rag to a bull. This year – according to South Korean media reports – the drills include contingency plans for a North Korean collapse scenario. This must strike fear – or more likely fury – into the hearts of North Korea’s elite.

Reduced avenues for action

Still, the hawks are stymied. Trump has made very clear – albeit in contrary fashion, in his endless praise of Kim’s (self-imposed) moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests – that a long-range-missile or nuclear test would be a red line. What moves would the US (and possibly its allies) make if that red line would be crossed?

Attacking South Korea in some way, shape or form, is another option – and indeed, North Korean state media have in recent weeks ramped up their verbal assaults against Moon Jae-in. But an actual attack might be a poor idea.

After two deadly attacks in 2010 – the apparent torpedoing of a corvette, and the shelling of an island – an infuriated Seoul was apparently restrained by Washington from retaliating. Then, in 2015, the South Korean military called North Korea’s bluff and made very, very clear that it was willing to go to war with North Korea after two of its soldiers were wounded by mines in the Demilitarized Zone, and after the North apparently fired projectiles over the border. In subsequent negotiations, the North apparently backed down. (Why “apparently?” Because there is still considerable murkiness over much of this.)

Since then, no deadly cross-border incidents have been initiated by North Korea.

What to talk about this time?

All indications suggest that Kim truly wants, once more, to get across a table with Trump.

The key problem is that Kim seems wedded to a top-down negotiating process. Despite repeated hopeful-but-vague statements from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the wake of the Hanoi summit, there is still no schedule for working-level talks, and word in the Beltway is that Washington’s current North Korea envoy – the well-regarded Stephen Biegun – is set to be reassigned.

And what if the two big chiefs do get together for another pow-wow? In the absence of working-level meetings, it is going to be hugely difficult to nail down agendas and talking points, let alone serious negotiating points. And unlike the single-issue Kim, Trump is a busy man, playing a global role and prepping for an electoral gutter fight that looks set to be the most savage in recent US history. However much he may enjoy the company of “The Marshal,” he cannot simply take a weekend off to to chat with him – particularly in the absence of an agenda.

It is possible that Kim is hoping for a breakdown of the South Korea-US alliance, a risk that right-wing South Koreans and some US voices endlessly warn of. Trump has made clear that he wants South Korea to cough up a lot more than the US$900 million it paid for alliance costs last year – and even that substantial sum is well below 50% of those costs. Some South Korean media are alleging that the latest figure is a whopping $5 billion, though those reports look dubious to this writer.

And even though Trump talks a strong line in monetizing US defense, it seems a vain hope to expect the bilateral alliance to implode any time in the near future. Moon, despite his leftist credentials, has been rock-solid on the alliance so far. Indeed, South Korea has no other military ally on Earth and it would be a ridiculously myopic leader who failed to see this plain-bloody-obvious truth.

Meanwhile, however hard one scours the global pundit-scape of North Korea experts, very, very few believe that Kim is truly willing to give up his nukes. Trump sticks to his guns and is unwilling to budge on sanctions.

So what could the two leaders talk about if they do meet? Some kind of middle ground looks unlikely to appear, absent very long and detailed working-level talks. And even then, it may not exist.

As South Korean-US military drills get under way and missiles splash, one after another, into the Sea of Japan, risks are rising, though the much-talked-about “regional tensions” are invisible to this writer in central Seoul: North Korea’s moves are not the talk in the coffee shops, nor are markets plunging.

The real risk may be the ticking clock. After Hanoi, Kim declared that he was willing to give his process with Trump until the end of the year to deliver results. The middle point of 2019  is well past. No solution is yet apparent.

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