The Debate

Why the US Needs to Revisit Its Negotiating Approach to North Korea—And Soon

North Korea is beginning to turn on diplomacy.

Why the US Needs to Revisit Its Negotiating Approach to North Korea—And Soon
Credit: Official White House Photo

Weeks after the collapse of the summit between Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, the North Korean leader finally broke his silence.

In a speech heavily focused on foreign affairs delivered to the Supreme People’s Assembly – North Korea’s pro forma parliament – Kim made clear his position.

He said that a third summit with Trump wasn’t off the table just yet, but getting there would require evidence that the U.S. position on sanctions relief had changed.

To this end, Kim also echoed a message he had originally delivered during his New Year’s Day address: that his patience is not infinite. He put in place a deadline for Trump. The United States would have to come around by the end of 2019.

While these were the headlines that came out of Kim’s speech, there were more ominous signs that North Korea may lessen its deference to Washington and resume provocative acts.

On Thursday, Kim oversaw the testing of a new tactical guided weapon, North Korea’s first public weapons test since the second summit with Trump in February ended without agreement.

What is more important than a suggestion that a third U.S.-North Korea summit is still possible is Kim’s resumption of a discussion of the United States’ so-called hostile policy.

For decades, North Korea has used the phrase to describe a large basket of behaviours and capabilities it sees as threatening its existence and security.

In the latest speech, Kim pointed at the resumption of US-South Korea exercises under the new “Dong Maeng” moniker, a Korean term which means “alliance” in English.

While the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises that North Korea spent years fiercely protesting are no more, Kim is not convinced that Washington is behaving in the way that would see through the implementation of the June 12 declaration that Kim and Trump agreed to in Singapore.

And so, Kim suggested that there would be tit for tat.

“As wind is bound to bring waves, the U.S. open hostile policy toward the DPRK will naturally bring our corresponding acts,” he said.

Such a statement has multiple objectives. It will reassure hardliners within the regime who oppose talks with the U.S. and favour a self-reliant posture emphasising a strong national defence. Kim spoke directly to this constituency by emphasising the need for the expansion of military capabilities.

Another objective will be to communicate to Washington that without a change in course, Trump will lose the one thing he cherishes most about the ongoing detente with Pyongyang: the lack of any serious provocations such as nuclear or intercontinental-range ballistic missile tests.

But a third objective might be to push China and Russia to take the issue of advocating for North Korean sanctions relief more seriously.

Last autumn, representatives from Moscow and Beijing joined a senior North Korean diplomat in a trilateral statement calling for the adjustment of UN Security Council resolution sanctions on Pyongyang in light of North Korea’s changed behaviour after 2017.

Now, with the U.S. unwilling to budge, Kim will need Russia and China to loosen up their implementation of existing sanctions.

While much of the air has been let out of America’s maximum pressure campaign over the course of the two summits, secondary sanctions have kept institutions in these countries in line.

After Hanoi, the U.S. Treasury designated two new Chinese shipping companies that it said had helped North Korea evade sanctions, for example.

Kim has yet to make a trip to Beijing to brief Xi about what exactly happened in Hanoi. After the Singapore summit, he did so not long after. Instead, Kim will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month.

No matter how tactically North Korea proceeds in the coming weeks and months, the strategic message is clear: Kim is determined to survive, with or without the United States.

After Hanoi, it doesn’t appear that North Korea will make any further concessions to the US.

As Kim moves to ensure his survival, the onus will fall on Washington to decide if it will continue with its practice of demanding all or nothing – finding itself with nothing in the process – or if it will begin to see the merits of a step-by-step approach.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning PostIt is republished here with kind permission.