Korean Peninsula Settlement: Well Kept Secret

On August 13, DPRK and the Republic of Korea agreed to hold another summit meeting: in Pyongyang in September. The next important moment for the settlement on the Korean peninsula will be in November, when the United States holds midterm Congress elections. Valdai Club expert Alexander Vorontsov discusses the settlement prospects and why secrecy and the lack of transparency on this issue play to the interests of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. 

Compared to early 2018, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has changed dramatically, as if at the wave of a magic wand, shifting from alarmist expectations of an all but imminent war between the US and the DPRK that dominated the second half of 2017 to a spectacular improvement in relations between the main protagonists: Pyongyang and Washington, and Pyongyang and Seoul. This process has been unfolding for a little over six months, and has culminated in two summit meetings between North and South Korean leaders on April 27 and May 26 in Panmunjom, a village on the 38th parallel, held for the first time in 11 years, and of course the first ever meeting between US President Donald Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, which was unthinkable as recently as in the winter of 2018.

Countries in Northeast Asia, as well as the vast majority in the international community met these long-awaited, but still unexpected watershed events with a sigh of relief, and have been closely following all the related developments ever since. However, there is a lack of reliable information for the international community.

The reason for this is simple. Both sides opted for top secrecy when organizing and holding meetings between their representatives, and have gone to great lengths to prevent any leaks on future or past bilateral initiatives. Suffice to say that intelligence services were charged with overseeing the normalization of bilateral relations between the leaders of the US and the DPRK, as well as the Republic of Korea, while usually tasks of this kind are assigned to foreign ministries. For the DPRK, considering its strong penchant for secrecy, this was hardly a surprise, something that could not be said about the US with its proud democratic traditions. The main reason for this is attributable to the challenges Donald Trump faces on the domestic policy front, where all his international steps, especially when dealing with the DPRK, are met with extreme suspicion and criticism.

This leads us to believe that Donald Trump’s strategy of secrecy in his dealings with Pyongyang may be his only option. At least it has been paying off until now, helping bring about tangible results in a complex and delicate matter.

At the same time, there is always a downside to any positive solution. The American public has a hard time accepting this lack of transparency, while the lack of it gives Trump’s opponents within the US establishment more leverage to build up pressure on the president and impose their own agenda for the talks.

Let’s look at specific examples of the key factors, achievements and challenges related to the evolving dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. The main achievements so far have been the Singapore summit and the joint statement by the two leaders. This brief document contains just four basic items, and instantly came under the fire of criticism within and outside of the US, with some claiming that it was shallow, etc. However, we believe this document is the most that could be achieved at this stage. This document sets the main directions for developing bilateral relations in the future.

Trump’s many critics were quick to accuse him of giving in, and handing a victory to North Korea. For example, the fact that the first of the four items in the statement sets forth a commitment by the United States and the DPRK to put their relations back on track, while mentioning the goal of DPRK’s denuclearization only in the second item, enabled Trump’s opponents to accuse him of adopting North Korea’s political logic and historical views. Specifically, critics argue that placing the items in this order constituted a de facto agreement by Trump with Pyongyang’s key talking points, whereby the DPRK was compelled to develop nuclear weapons as a way to defend itself from a hostile US policy.

The conservative right in the US, as well as in South Korea and Japan, were also shocked by some of the statements made by the US president during his news conference in Singapore. Specifically, Trump said that the annual large-scale military exercises by the US and South Korea were tremendously expensive, while also very provocative in terms of the relations with Pyongyang.

From this moment, the US faced a dilemma in its relations with DPRK. In terms of rhetoric, the US president has continued to praise Kim Jong-un, calling him a great person and the head of his country, and it should be recalled that all the bold statements made by Trump in Singapore were nothing more than declarations. On the practical level however, US policy in terms of both spirit and content is guided by the intransigent conservative right. They keep insisting that the US keep the sanctions and maximum pressure against North Korea in place without easing them until the DPRK completes verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) regardless of any major step-by-step arms reductions by North Korea. Only after that will Washington be ready to review Pyongyang’s proposals on security guarantees. That said, it is clear to any reasonable observer that the process will take several years even in the most favorable conditions. The logic that guides the proponents of this approach in the US is simple: the all-out international sanctions spearheaded by the US caused Kim Jong-un to agree to denuclearization, scared him and forced him to accept all the terms of capitulation, so this policy must carry on in order to achieve its purpose.

The shallowness of this kind of logic is obvious to many regional powers. This approach has caused talks to collapse in the past despite early successes (the 1994 Framework Agreement, the 6-party talks in 2003-2008, etc.) for one simple reason: Pyongyang had no intention of surrendering neither then nor now, and was committed to finding ways to improve relations with the US by taking mutual steps to meet each other halfway, while also respecting each other’s sovereignty and interests.

Pyongyang demonstrated its good will and the sincerity of its intentions by taking unilateral practical steps instead of engaging in rhetoric to limit its nuclear and missile capability. Since April 2018, the country has unilaterally imposed a moratorium on nuclear missile tests, has blown up Punggye-ri, its main nuclear test site, and has begun dismantling its most up-to-date Sohe rocket-space complex. In August 2018, in accordance with item 4 of the Singapore statement, Pyongyang sent the remains of US service personnel who died in the 1950-1953 Korean War to the US.

But what are the messages coming from the US? It is said that all these initiatives are insignificant, while also voicing discontent with the failure to invite foreign observers to witness the destruction of nuclear and missile facilities. North Korea is also called on to do much more by way of nuclear disarmament. All this taken together is intended to demonstrate that easing sanctions is not an option so far.

Against this backdrop, DPRK leadership has voiced its misgivings over the situation and signaled that its patience and commitment to unilateral disarmament may not be indefinite if they do not get something in return. The last incident in this series took place at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Singapore in early August 2018, when US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reiterated some of the messages mentioned above. DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho responded by saying that Washington’s actual policy was increasingly at odds with the spirit and content of the agreements Donald Trump and Kin Jong-un reached in Singapore, and placing the entire denuclearization process at risk along with the future of the US-DPRK dialogue.

All these factors taken together prove that US-DPRK rapprochement, and consequently the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula have once again come under threat despite the inspiring opportunities that materialized with the holding of the Singapore summit. In order to prevent the situation from sliding into an impasse and the entire process from breaking down, new proactive efforts are needed, primarily from Donald Trump.

The only encouraging factor in all this is the suggestion that Trump and Kim Jong-un have reached some kind of an oral agreement, and maybe developed trust in their relations or devised a road map for undertaking mutual steps, and are seeking to abide by it by exchanging letters through these trusted persons. If this is true, the president’s personal diplomacy would be at odds with the official foreign policy of the US. There are serious doubts that this somewhat unnatural cooperation framework would last very long.

At the same time, it is definitely encouraging that the current US president, unlike any of his recent predecessors, is sincerely interested in maintaining positive momentum in his dialogue with Pyongyang and seeing the nuclear deal through. It seems as if his original views are shifting, including the widespread belief among Americans that anything can be done quickly. Trump is becoming increasingly aware of the multi-layered and complex nature of efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and that it cannot be done overnight. If Trump withstands the immense pressure coming from the influential right in the US, and even more so succeeds in the November 2018 mid-terms, this would keep the prospects for establishing constructive relations between the US and the DPRK alive.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.