With US President Donald Trump cancelling the latest trip to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the North Korean nuclear deal Trump signed amid great fanfare in Singapore in June is unraveling, an indication of how Kim Jong-un has played out his options once again.
North Korea is carrying on its weapons work, China and Russia are slackening sanctions and President Xi Jinping is set to visit Pyongyang in September for a new show of solidarity.
By skillfully diverting denuclearization with the emotional return of remains said to be those of US soldiers missing in action during the Korean War, Kim managed to buy time and construct a reasonable image for himself without offering much more in return. A bonus for South Korea is the resumption of on-again-off-again reunions of separated families helping to create more goodwill for Pyongyang.
While the ceremony with flag-draped coffins provided encouragement to Trump’s base, the International Atomic Energy Agency report on continuing weapons-related activities in North Korea highlights unresolved threats from the Pyongyang regime and underscores the hollowness of Trump’s post-summit claim that “North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat.”
Frustration is obviously mounting in Washington. Kim Jong-un stoically refuses to make any meaningful move towards denuclearization as he had pledged to undertake. South Korean news reports say Kim had made no commitment even to receive Pompeo when he arrived, as the regime was too busy preparing its welcome for Xi for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist state that falls on Sept. 9.
Xi will be the first Chinese head of state to visit Pyongyang in 13 years, a development signifying Beijing’s new determination to keep the Kim regime firmly in its grasp, especially as Sino-US tensions worsen over trade and geopolitical power play.
Kim’s refusal so far to hand over a full list and timetable detailing his nuclear arsenal and related facilities, which John Bolton, the White House national security advisor, has called essential for arriving at “final, fully verified denuclearization,” is the Trump administration’s concern.
In recent weeks, Bolton has taken to implying that Trump was misled into accepting the Singapore summit by South Korean interlocutors relaying Kim’s assurances that he would denuclearize within a year’s time. Bolton left the impression that this secondhand assurance led Trump to accept the summit.
Whether true or not that such assurance was given, Kim shows no sign of diverting from his oft-stated policy of “phased and synchronous disarmament” – emphasizing the word “disarmament” as opposed to denuclearization. The process outlines multiple steps leading towards the disarmament goal that must be compensated each step by matching moves from the United States.
Although the United States already made a huge concession by cancelling its annual joint exercise with South Korea – and is now threatening to restart them – Kim claims it is Washington’s turn to match his moves, such as his dubious claims of shutting down a nuclear testing site and dismantling a missile launch pad. Kim also mentions the halt of nuclear tests and missile launches on top of humanitarian gestures like returning the remains of US soldiers.
In return for these largely symbolic moves, Kim is demanding Washington to lift sanctions and approve a “peace declaration” that would be a prelude to signing a peace treaty formally closing the state of war on the Korean Peninsula – a thinly disguised attempt to invalidate the US-Korean military alliance that has protected the South over the past 65 years. Ending sanctions could also have the effect of prolonging the North’s nuclear threats by allowing the regime to earn more foreign exchanges. At a rally in West Virginia, Trump said he would lift sanctions if North Korea gets "rid of the nukes."
China, another combatant in the Korean War, has its own regional strategic interest and expresses willingness to join such a peace arrangement. However, China’s participation, even as it whittles away at ongoing UN sanctions, could further complicate the ongoing denuclearization process. Reports from Seoul say Beijing has begun allowing extensive underground trade by Chinese merchants in Dandong, the border city on the Yalu River. North Korean restaurants in China have also reopened, with officials reissuing visas for North Korean workers. China also is reported to overlook smuggling and transshipments of oil and coal.
Astonishingly, South Korea under the center-left government of President Moon Jae-in appears to join this trend of weakening the US sanctions regime. In one recent embarrassing case, the conservative opposition party demanded a parliamentary probe into reports of a local company in Seoul surreptitiously importing 35,000 tons of North Korean coal, secretly transshipped from a Russian port.
In another more serious case, US officials have reportedly warned officials in Seoul not to provide electric power, building equipment and other material for setting up a new North-South liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, as agreed by Moon and Kim at their talks at Panmunjom in May.
While the government and business community in Seoul anxiously watch if the guilty party may be hit by a penalty from Washington, Moon appears to be losing patience with Washington’s hard line. At his two summit-level talks with Kim in April and May, Moon agreed to accept a “peace declaration” by the year’s end. He is also pushing for reopening of economic projects, including tourism and railway connections with the North to link with China, Mongolia and Russia in a scheme he calls the East Asian Peace initiative.
Moon argued on August 15 that the development of inter-Korean relations should not be linked to the progress of US–North Korean relations. In short, he is steadily removing himself from the Trump administration’s denuclearization-at-all-cost policy.
Under pressure to choose between détente with Kim and US-imposed sanctions, Moon is backing down from unconditionally supporting Trump’s demand for quick-paced denuclearization. He evidently assumes that the North’s nuclear arsenal and capability have advanced far enough already that pushing for a short deadline is unrealistic. Privately, some intelligence analysts in Seoul consider the US plan for removing atomic bombs in storage, numbering as many as 20 to 60, and closing down related nuclear facilities in a time-frame of one year as overly ambitious.
Bolton is said to be hoping to remove up to 60 percent of nuclear devices within a year’s time. It’s doubtful if Kim – short of threat of nuclear attack – would accept such a demand, not while Pompeo is pressing Kim to deliver the list and removal timeline.
It’s uncertain if Moon can help break this impasse during his next meeting with Kim in mid-September. In Seoul and Washington, hope is running high on Moon's trip to Pyongyang as it was his role as an intermediary that helped bring about the Singapore summit.
Meanwhile speculation runs high about Trump meeting Kim again for a second summit in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. Such a summit would further burnish Kim’s image on the international diplomatic stage. After all, the general consensus is that Kim overshadowed Trump with his maiden appearance at the Singapore summit, boosting his image as a skillful negotiator on the international stage. Kim would likely relish meeting with Trump for a second round. If so, analysts wonder what would his card be this time? Kim could decide on another showy but empty gesture like returning soldier remains – or something more substantive that Trump could crow about before the US midterm elections in November.
Shim Jae Hoon, formerly a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. This is updated from his contribution to YaleGlobal Online, the online publication of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization.