One can compare the Korean peace process to walking down a rocky road somewhere in the Kumgang mountains — a road with crumbling edges, sharp rocks, and huge gullies that leads to a very picturesque view. In the past two months, U.S.-North Korea negotiations have been affected by the impeachment inquiry against the sitting U.S. president, Donald Trump. Even though such an inquiry is a domestic political process, considering the geopolitical importance of the United States, ramifications of this particular inquiry inevitable spill over into the dimension of international politics.
Will the inquiry influence the Korean peace process and, if so, how?
Despite some major improvements in establishing a platform for political dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in 2018, the negotiations slowed down even before the Trump administration got swamped with subpoenas and media inquiries about Ukraine. Therefore, to assess the effect of the inquiry, the article first examines the political background of the negotiations and then outlines two possible scenarios of how the situation will develop.
The political environment surrounding Pyongyang has changed since 2017 when Trump was sworn into office. In that regard, there are two main factors that should be considered before analyzing the effect of the inquiry itself.
First, Trump’s political unpredictability is not as effective as it used to be. North Korea did not know how Trump would behave in 2017, which created fears of a potential war. Since Pyongyang’s ultimate foreign policy objective is regime survival, it attempted to develop a pattern-based relationship with Trump. The strategy of opening up to negotiations through Seoul’s assistance worked out well. North Korea thus avoided any potential risk of war, and by now it has also successfully adjusted itself to Trump’s negotiating style.
Second, North Korea does not have to deal with the united Sino-American diplomatic front today. Washington pressured Beijing into really enforcing the UN sanctions in 2017, which was painful for the North Korean economy – it contracted for the second year in a row (3.5 percent and 4.1 percent respectively). It is naive to assume that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear arsenal because of sanctions. The nuclear program is the ultimate guarantee of regime survival, and North Korea endured far worse times economically in the 1990s. That said, the sanctions encouraged Pyongyang to engage in negotiations more actively in 2018. Nevertheless, the geopolitical conditions have changed again recently because of the Sino-American trade war, and Beijing’s renewed willingness to turn a blind eye to border trade with North Korea helped Pyongyang to alleviate the economic damage.
Now the impeachment inquiry against Trump is likely to become a third factor that hinders the Korean peace process. Why? North Korea is becoming less flexible in its negotiating approach as it senses domestic instability in Washington. The failed Hanoi summit, collapse of the Stockholm talks, and the increasing degree of coolness in Pyongyang’s interaction with Seoul are symptomatic in that context. North Korea also set an official negotiating deadline for the denuclearization talks with the United States. According to Pyongyang, unless some progress is achieved by December 2019, it will resume its nuclear and long-range missile tests, which is a clear attempt to utilize Trump’s weakening negotiating position.
While analyzing the effect of the inquiry on the Korean peace process, there are two main scenarios – if Trump is removed from office or if he remains in the White House. Depending on what happens with Trump’s presidency, negotiations will either come to a grinding halt or transform into a new format.
In the first scenario, Trump is no longer president and Vice President Mike Pence will have to step in. Pence is, unlike Trump, much less enthusiastic about a proactive approach in negotiations with North Korea. He is a proponent of a more hawkish sanctions-based approach, which is reflected in his public statements. In 2018, Pence blasted Pyongyang for its human rights record during a rather volatile political moment of the PyeongChang negotiations. Furthermore, Pence’s personal relationship with Kim Jong Un is also far from ideal, if compared to the one between Trump and Kim. Considering that Pence’s personality and political profile are very different from those of Trump, his policy approach to Pyongyang will be more inflexible.
The second scenario is based on the assumption that due to the current composition of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, Trump will remain in office. If that happens, the likelihood of a compromise such as, for example, a multistage verifiable disarmament treaty is higher than in the first scenario. The main problem, however, is that so far Trump is the only major political figure in Washington who views the North Korean leadership and a compromise with them favorably (unlike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or former National Security Advisor John Bolton).
One should keep in mind that even if Trump does not get impeached and removed from office, the lengthy inquiry will weaken his negotiating position. U.S. policy on North Korea, thus, will be unstable because of the permanent pressure of the inquiry and the 2020 elections. On Pyongyang’s end it will be more logical to wait and see who becomes the next president before changing its negotiating strategy. If Trump loses his office either because of the inquiry or the 2020 elections, then North will merely go back to its classical “nuclear blackmail” tactic.
To conclude, current prospects for the Korean peace process do not look promising and the impeachment inquiry against Trump makes them even more bleak. Striking a deal by Pyongyang’s deadline is absolutely unimaginable, for the ongoing impeachment hearings pressure Trump into refocusing from his foreign policy on more crucial domestic issues. Until it becomes clear whether the current administration remains in the White House, North Korea will continue to exploit this political instability to its benefit. Unfortunately, as the time is running out Washington’s inability to focus on the negotiations due to the domestic turmoil might prove to be detrimental to the long-term goals of denuclearizing North Korea and inter-Korean reconciliation.
Ildar Daminov is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, who is currently employed by Visionary Analytics, a policy think-tank based in Vilnius.