Last week, I highlighted that despite the flurry of diplomatic activity and optimism on and around the Korean Peninsula, the Trump administration has maintained its hardline stance. In particular, I emphasized the appointment of Admiral Harry Harris as the new U.S. ambassador to Seoul, in conjunction with Trump’s other hawkish advisers, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, and how their deep distrust of Pyongyang and demand for sweeping concessions up front could easily undermine any potential deal or the implementation thereof.
Since then, the flurry of diplomatic activity has continued, including: Kim Jong-un’s second summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping; the first trilateral Japan-China-South Korea summit meeting in over two years; Trump pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Tehran; Pompeo’s second trip to Pyongyang in about a month (though his first as secretary of state) culminating with the release of three American prisoners; and, finally, the long-awaited official announcement that the Kim-Trump summit meeting will be held on June 12 in Singapore.
Yet, alongside these developments, Trump has maintained a hard line, and, notably, Pyongyang has responded in kind. Although noted by the press, Trump’s remarks and Pyongyang’s response have been mostly drowned out by the onrush of other events.
Last Sunday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North’s official state news organ, quoted an unnamed spokesman for the North Korean foreign ministry, criticizing the Trump administration for “misleading public opinion” by claiming its so-called maximum pressure campaign brought Kim Jong-un to the table. The spokesman also slammed the United States for “making open remarks that it would not ease the sanctions and pressure until the DPRK gives up its nuclear weapons completely and also moving to aggravate the situation on the Korean Peninsula by deploying strategic assets on the peninsula and increasing its attempt to taking [sic] up ‘human rights’ issue against the DPRK.” The spokesman stated Washington is “deliberately” provoking Pyongyang in a “dangerous attempt to ruin the hardly-won atmosphere of dialogue.”
Pyongyang’s statement, while historically not out of the ordinary, does show a more aggressive stance toward Washington than has been the case over the last few weeks of ongoing summit activity. It also demonstrates what is obvious to most observers (but which hopeful predictions and irresponsible speculation conveniently sidestep), namely: the fundamental fissures between the United States and North Korea are still firmly in place, always bubbling just beneath the surface. And while rhetorical posturing is part of any adversarial negotiation, it is not mere words we are talking about but the signaling of concrete and clashing positions. Ultimately, this could very well undermine substantive progress once all the chips are down and the appearance of pre-summit comity has dissipated.
With this in mind, I asked Dr. Van Jackson a couple of questions about the back and forth between Washington and Pyongyang. Jackson is a senior lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington and author of Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations. He is also a senior editor at War on the Rocks and is currently writing a book on the causes, consequences, and risks of the ongoing nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.
The Diplomat: What do you think motivated the North Korean statement that the Trump Administration is undermining the peaceful atmosphere?
Jackson: I think Kim saw reports of Trump’s NRA speech, where he hinted that tough talk alone was enough to force North Korea into its current diplomatic track. If I’m Kim and I hear that, I not only feel like Trump’s causing me to lose face; I feel like maybe all the bloody nose talk was a bluff. That would piss me off.
What, if anything, does it portend for the coming talks, beyond the fact that the two sides clearly possess differing stances on how to proceed?
Jackson: It looks like KCNA is creating discursive wiggle room for either not reaching a deal during a Trump-Kim summit, or reaching a deal that allows it to renege on the spirit, which would basically be a replay of the Leap Day Deal but in more dramatic fashion. I’m not sure North Korea’s statements reveal anything decisive on this, but it definitely doesn’t say anything good.
The fact remains that neither side has deviated from its fundamental position on denuclearization and how to achieve it. So, the release of the hostages is surely welcome news, it helps maintain reduced tensions, and is a positive signal. However, it should not be overstated. In the short-term, Kim Jong-un scores some points internationally by appearing flexible and open to making concessions, while Trump can point to the release as further evidence of the success of his so-called “maximum pressure” campaign; more evidence to support his endless carping about achieving more than the Obama administration could. Beyond this, though, it does not change underlying differences.
To be clear, at this point, we simply do not know what will happen at the summit. By all indications, the Trump administration will pursue what is referred to as the Libya model to denuclearization (following the secret agreement reached between the U.S. and U.K. and Libya in 2003), whereby North Korea must first agree to relinquish its nuclear weapons and end its program, as well as permit the invasive inspection regime necessary to prove it has done so. National Security Advisor John Bolton remarked the administration had “very much in mind the Libya model.” Only once Pyongyang acquiesces will it receive concessions from the U.S. side.
North Korea itself has explicitly stated it wants a “progressive and synchronous” (or gradual and simultaneous) series of steps, which implies the opposite of what Trump and his advisors are demanding, namely, reciprocal and step-by-step trade-offs. One or both sides will have to become more flexible for any real, substantive settlement to occur.
Both Kim and Trump face substantial legitimacy deficits. North Korea is seen as a rogue and tyrannical regime, now equipped with nuclear weapons and a rapidly advanced ballistic missile program. In the short and medium term, appearing to be flexible and at least making a verbal commitment to a grand settlement could accrue to Kim’s benefit. He can continue his diplomatic charm offensive throughout the region, normalize his role as a leader of a nuclear-armed state, and maybe even achieve some reduction in the punishing sanctions regime against Pyongyang. Trump, meanwhile, faces significant and growing domestic troubles, and appears to put little to no importance on holding to agreements the United States has previously signed. For him, appearing to reach a grand settlement with Pyongyang (again, at least in spirit) could be packaged as some sort of historic win, bringing much needed applause for an otherwise increasingly embattled presidency. Yet, in time, without concrete implementation of an agreement, initial PR fads away, and reality comes rushing in.
Again, we do not know what will transpire. What we can say is that breaking away from the Iran deal certainly does not help. Much like the so-called Libyan solution (which ended a decade later with Muammar Gaddafi’s death by Western-backed militias), breaking the Iran deal severely undermines the credibility of the U.S. government. Why would Pyongyang trust anything Trump signs on to?
However, Pyongyang has not trusted the U.S. for a very long time, going all the way back to the Korean War. Kim and the ruling cohort in Pyongyang have no illusions about the threat Trump poses. Pulling out of the Iran deal confirms a belief they already hold. All of which gets back to the central question: is either side ready to budge from longstanding, fundamental positions? If not, no real settlement will be possible.