US-North Korea Relations: From Infancy to Maturity

(Photo: Rodong Sinmun.)

When Chairman Kim and President Trump arrived in Hanoi, it was broadly assumed that after their meeting they would present a deal to formally end the Korean War. This has not happened; both delegations left with no document signed despite a friendly dinner on February 27 and formal negotiations on February 28.

An important thing we can learn from this surprising outcome is that the two leaders seem to leave much less to their respective negotiating teams than would be usual in the case of bilateral summits. Rather than having had a prepared deal that just needed to be signed with many smiles, hugs and handshakes, the leaders sat down in front of a cloze test with many blank spaces.

If we look at the process from this perspective, the “no deal” result makes good sense. In Singapore, Kim and Trump got to know each other. In Hanoi, they presented their maximum versions of demands and minimum versions of possible concessions. This is common negotiating practice, though it typically takes place among negotiators behind closed doors, not among the top leaders in front of hundreds of cameras.

But if the leadership style is authoritarian and top-down, then there is a limit to what underlings can achieve. The bosses have more than just the final word. Secretary Pompeo formulated it like this, although he politely omitted a reference to his own president: “And when you’re dealing with a country that is the nature of North Korea, it is often the case that [only] the most senior leaders have the capacity to make those important decisions.”

Following the logic of a typical negotiation, the next steps will be to reduce the demands of the other side as much as possible, and to increase one’s own concessions as little as possible. The way Donald Trump bent over backwards to avoid the impression of a bitter ending indicated that he is indeed willing to continue the bilateral talks. The rare interview given by the North Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi and the unusually quickly issued public statement on North Korea’s state media went in the same, positive direction.

This is good news; describing the Hanoi Summit as a failure would therefore be wrong. Moreover, given the scarcity of knowledge about North Korea and its leadership, the hours spent in close contact in Hanoi will provide US intelligence analysts with valuable insights into North Korea’s goals and its tactics, as well as in the personality of the top leader who plays such a significant role as acknowledged by Secretary Pompeo.

The Iran deal is proof that sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal, one that leaves one side dissatisfied and just waiting for a chance to withdraw. Donald Trump has been facing huge pressure at home, with his opponents accusing him of selling away the massive US strategic advantage vis-à-vis North Korea in exchange for worthless concessions and merely symbolic acts. The post-summit statement made by DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho regarding the “permanent and complete dismantlement all of the nuclear production facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium” was not deemed as being enough in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions that were imposed upon North Korea since 2016, if that was, in fact, the actual proposed exchange.

Kim, however, did not want to offer more, and to settle for less—at least this time, as Ri’s formulation given “the current level of confidence” implies. The five sanctions that North Korea wanted to see lifted, as the Foreign Minister argued, “hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of [the North Korean] people.” We often tend to forget that Kim Jong Un is under domestic pressure, too. After decades of portraying the US as the Korean people’s worst enemy, he was meeting with the top representative of that country for the second time, all smiles and pats on the back. In a frontline state like North Korea, this will have raised more than a few eyebrows—not openly of course, as such behavior could have deadly consequences. It was important for Kim to show that he is tough and that he will not let himself be played by the sweet-talking Americans.

It is remarkable that Ri indicated, “the security guarantee is more important to us [than the lifting of economic sanctions].” This could be a blunt lie to hide actual desperation caused by the most recent sanctions, which seems to be accepted as conventional wisdom in Washington. But if we take Ri’s statement at face value, then the explicitly repeated commitment to achieve “complete denuclearization” (완전한 비핵화) might be more reflective of the actual North Korean position, and a security guarantee might be higher on Pyongyang’s agenda than most of us have so far assumed.

Another remark from Ri’s short statement is noteworthy: that the dismantlement of the nuclear production facilities in the Yongbyon area was supposed to take place “in the presence of U.S. experts.” This shows that the North Korean focus is almost exclusively on the United States; the international community—in the form of the IAEA for inspections, or the UN for sanctions—is seen as being of less importance.

Both leaders played it safe this time. They thereby left an opportunity for a continuation of the dialogue. What is important now is that both resist the temptation to portray themselves as winners and the other side as losers. This is even more important since, as has been confirmed in Hanoi, the two leaders play a substantial role in the process and are not merely symbolic figureheads of powerful establishments. Feelings matter, so they should not be hurt. The very positive public statements both sides made right after the summit show a strong effort at keeping the dialogue going.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Kim, Moon and Trump is off the table for the time being, but with some luck this is only a delay. It shows how hard it really is to achieve a peace agreement and how worthy it would indeed be of international recognition and respect once it has actually been reached.

Meanwhile, as a result of the Hanoi Summit, South Korea is back in the game. Seoul has been mostly watching and waiting in the last months, with attention focused on Pyongyang and Washington. Now, as in early 2018, Moon Jae-in can be crucial in keeping the process going and acting again as an honest broker between his US ally and his North Korean brother. He wants to reactivate inter-Korean economic cooperation in Kaesong and will try to overcome US resistance against this idea. In doing so he needs to be careful, however, to avoid a negative impact on the mood of the Seoul-Washington relationship. Lecturing a US president has never been a good idea, as Kim Dae-jung found out from his interaction with George W. Bush.

China remains the big unknown in this game. It is not unthinkable that the self-confidence Kim Jong Un has displayed during the round of poker in Hanoi comes from the knowledge that Beijing is backing him up, that he does have a plan B. There is no need to settle for a second-best deal with Trump if the Chinese are willing to mitigate at least the worst of the sanctions’ effects. The fact that the North Korean delegation headed to Beijing after the summit shows how close in consultation and coordination both sides are.

So what has happened, and where do we go from here?

The US and North Korea were willing to declare an end to the Korean War and to take the first steps towards diplomatic normalization. Kim Jong Un offered the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in exchange for the lifting of the mostly economy-related sanctions implemented since 2016. That price was too high for Trump, and the extent of the denuclearization offer was too meager. So both sides agreed to disagree for the time being and are now getting ready for the next round of bargaining. In fact, the negotiating might only begin in earnest now after the opening moves made in Singapore and Hanoi.

As most analysts agreed from the outset, this is going to be a long and difficult process. We have learned that we need to be more careful with predictions, especially with so many unknown variables involved. As long as the two leaders are Kim and Trump, their meetings will be more important, and the outcomes will be less predictable than what we would expect in similar settings of international relations. If this is true, then the Hanoi Summit was not a failure, but one out of many steps from the infancy of US-DPRK relations towards maturity.

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