By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
It was only a month ago that the presidents of both sides of the Korean Peninsula, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, were full of smiles, projecting unprecedented optimism about a peaceful and prosperous future for their countries. Who could blame anyone who read the Panmunjom Declaration — which concluded the summit between North and South — for thinking that a new dawn had broken over Korea, banishing conflict from there forever?
Well, much of it was too good to be true. More than anything else, it proved that, despite the deep isolation of North Korea and the inexperience of if its leader, Kim is a rather astute diplomatic operator, playing his limited though powerful cards very efficiently; maneuvering and manipulating his way to survival and being ready to engage with the international community.
For the North Koreans, those in charge of the South are no more than American stooges. Hence, the meeting with Moon was just a prologue, as important as it was, for the planned summit with US President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore. If it happens, and there are currently serious doubts as to whether it will still take place, this will be the first ever summit between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader. It is crucial for Kim to have this summit and cash in on his pragmatic approach — as demonstrated in his recent agreement with his arch-enemies from the South — and the only country he could possibly present this check to is the US. Trump is also investing much of his political capital in the success of the impending summit, at which he expects North Korea to renounce its nuclear program in its entirety: Something that he would consider a victory for his self-proclaimed tough approach.
At the end of the day, the real interlocutors for Pyongyang are not in Seoul but in Washington and Beijing. However, there is a significant contrast between the approaches of these two big powers to these delicately hazardous dealings with a regime that is aware its margins for error are very narrow. While China is operating behind the scenes, exerting its influence as the major political ally and economic partner of North Korea, things are diametrically different in Washington.
In this White House administration, much is done in public, with little diplomatic subtlety and even less sensitivity to complexity. For instance, there is the statement by hawkish White House National Security Advisor John Bolton that he would like to model a disarmament agreement with North Korea on the 2003 deal reached with Libya. This analogy sent shivers down quite a few spines among the regime in Pyongyang.
Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi’s decision to terminate his country’s weapons of mass destruction program stunned much of the international community, which reacted in a similar way to the commitments made in the Panmunjom Declaration by president Kim only a few weeks ago, including welcoming international inspectors to verify his commitment to the removal of WMDs. However, the North Korean leadership was incensed by the Libyan analogy, as they are well aware of the gruesome fate that subsequently befell Gaddafi and his country, and the role that Western countries played in it. Pyongyang saw this comparison as both insulting and threatening.
Furthermore, the North Korean leadership is not oblivious to the additional chest-thumping from new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, like Bolton, is given to constantly repeating in public that the concessions made by the North Koreans are due to the “maximum pressure” exerted by the Trump administration. Despite avoiding direct criticism of Trump himself, or questioning his sincerity about striking a deal, North Korea is still threatening to cancel the summit in response to these comments. Pyongyang has already abruptly called off high-level talks with Seoul.
Whether Kim and his regime respond to Trump’s pressure, combined with that from Beijing, or conclude that the only way to enable them to preside over economic development and retain power is to concede to Washington’s demands, the high-profile bragging of US officials might achieve the complete opposite of this objective. In the final analysis, it might be the case that the current regime in Pyongyang is susceptible to pressure and is willing to give up its nuclear program. However, threats without any incentives and inflicting public humiliation upon one’s negotiating partner are not a recipe for reaching a peaceful settlement.
In the first instance, the objective of the international community is to stop North Korea from continuing to enrich uranium, developing delivery systems and weaponizing them with nuclear warheads. It is equally important to prevent a war between North Korea and any of its neighbours. In the long run, it should remain an aspiration to see one of the most oppressive regimes in the world give way to one that respects its own people’s most basic human rights — but not through military force.
For all of this, an approach that identifies North Korea’s soft underbelly, including its desperation for economic inducements and guarantees that it won’t face external attempts at regime change, stands a better chance of success than the constant obsession in Washington to present Kim’s regime as one which is surrendering.
Summits always carry with them the danger that, if they fail, there might not be a fall-back plan, especially if they are not well-planned and calibrated. In this case, June 12 might end in deep rifts between those at the top of their respective hierarchies and might result in irreparable personal damage. The Trump-Kim summit should, therefore, only take place if both sides have done their preparatory work and guaranteed that it won’t end by bringing about the collapse of the diplomatic process with North Korea. Otherwise, to cancel the summit is not the worst idea coming out of Pyongyang.
*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg