The Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump was supposed to be the apotheosis of the Korean peace process. Unfortunately, as many North Korea watchers agree, the summit turned out to be a complete fiasco. One of the main reasons for this imbroglio was that the United States and North Korea failed to coordinate their negotiating positions well in advance.
According to conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Pyongyang’s negotiators responsible for the failure suffered a severe punishment. The newspaper claimed that the head of the North Korean delegation to Hanoi, Kim Yong Chol, was even executed for the failure to achieve practical results during the summit. The news, however, turned out to be fake: The “executed” official resurfaced in photos on North Korean media just several days later. Even though Kim Yong Chol managed to escape a terrible fate, Hanoi was still a major setback for Pyongyang’s diplomacy. Will North Korea readjust its negotiation strategy after the Hanoi debacle? And if so, how?
To answer these questions, it is essential to understand the dual nature of North Korean long-term and short-term interests. The long-term goal for the North Korean elites is to ensure their own survival. Despite all the military bravado, they do not want a war, and the nuclear program has always been the ultimate life insurance policy for them. Ironically, Trump’s chaotic North Korea policy, which jumps from threatening “fire and fury” to offering economic cooperation, changed the rules of the game. Unlike previous American presidents, Trump didn’t seem bothered by the possibility of Seoul being turned into a fiery inferno in case of a war with North Koreans, which caught Pyongyang off guard.
Thus, Pyongyang, feeling threatened, is torn between two short-term goals. On the one hand, it is desperately trying to survive Trump’s presidency. Even if the talks start collapsing due to the lack of progress, North Korea will try to stretch them until 2020 or 2024, waiting for a more predictable American president to take office. On the other hand, North Korea desperately needs security guarantees and, especially, the relief of economic sanctions in exchange for certain disarmament concessions. Being entangled by these contradictions, Kim Jong Un traveled to Singapore and, later on, to Hanoi.
One must admit that while preparing for the talks North Korea seriously underestimated Trump as a negotiator. It is hard to blame them considering that the majority of the American mass media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, were very critical of president Trump’s negotiating competencies. Many feared that he would make unnecessary concessions for the sake of publicity. With that background, Pyongyang most likely assumed that the United States would truly agree to ease the sanctions in exchange for minor concessions such as destroying the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, which by now constitute a small part of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. This, however, was not the case. As soon as the American delegation realized that Pyongyang would not offer anything serious, they immediately walked away from the deal.
North Korea was somewhat unhappy with this turn of events but it still signaled its readiness to continue negotiations. Washington did the same. Thus, trying to pursue both of its goals at the same time, Pyongyang plays on three different fronts.
First, North Korea is trying to gain political support before the next round of negotiations. It regularly consults both China and Russia to outweigh Trump’s unpredictability and ease the economic pressure. Kim Jong Un recently attended a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Pyongyang. Considering the rapidly deteriorating environment of Sino-American relations due to the ongoing trade war, China can increase its economic assistance to North Korea despite UN sanctions. This will give Pyongyang some breathing space for a while.
Second, there are more diplomatic opportunities North Korea might use for making progress in negotiations. South Koreans, for example, are still considering the possibility of a fourth summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. If this summit is to take place in Seoul, it might serve as the boost that the disarmament talks need. Trump is visiting Seoul at the end of June to coordinate his negotiating approach with Moon. Therefore, Pyongyang is likely to soften its stance toward the South, launching another “charm offensive,” since it needs Seoul as a mediator. First signs of that are already visible in the North Korean press. After weeks of bashing Seoul for the allegedly unneeded interference with the North Korea-U.S negotiations, such publications suddenly stopped. Rodong Sinmun, the official mouthpiece of the North Korean ruling party, in one of its recent articles hailed the inter-Korean agreements, signaling a turn in the media campaign.
Finally, there are indications that Trump is ready to accept partial concessions. For example, as prominent North Korea expert Andrei Lankov suggests, the United States might give up on implementing the idea of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” in just one go. Trump clearly understands that this approach is political suicide for the North Korean elites. The key members of the Trump administration, on the other hand, do not seem to be as flexible as the president himself. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are particularly displeased with the idea, at least judging by the North Korean comments. This will probably result in Pyongyang’s renewed attempts to deal with Trump through intelligence specialists rather than the Department of State.
To conclude, it is most crucial not to lose the negotiating momentum in dealing with Pyongyang while Trump is still in office. Because of his unpredictability North Korea cannot use its classical nuclear blackmailing strategy and is still open to negotiations. By coordinating its approach with South Korea and China, the U.S. should not only put more political pressure but also be more flexible and offer effective benefits in response to Pyongyang’s new diplomatic strategy.
Daminov Ildar is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and is currently working as a research fellow for the German Parliament.