The high-level of optimism generated for a breakthrough in the working-level talks between the US and North Korean negotiators despite that Pyongyang fired a series of missiles days before the commencement of the talks disappeared with a whimper soon enough after flicker of hope, a repeat of what had earlier transpired in June 2018 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore and then again between the two in Hanoi in February 2019.
While the first ever Trump-Kim summit in Singapore showed some glimmer of hope with vague promises by either side, the Hanoi summit ended in disaster as Trump walked away without lunch or even issuing a joint statement. The reasons why the Stockholm talks broke down in early October are not difficult to decipher. It reflected that Pyongyang was not willing to compromise a bit.
Yet, the credit to pursue dialogue must go to some extent to Trump that despite the advice by his hardliner advisors at home, he has not abandoned diplomacy as a means to fostering bilateral trust, notwithstanding that his efforts have not yielded any desirable success. Trump is under pressure to rethink his North Korean policy because Pyongyang shows no sign to take the talks seriously. That is the perception in Washington.
Soon enough accusations and counteraccusations flew in abundance. Kim Myong-gil, North Korea’s chief negotiator, blamed the US for the failure in talks. He threatened that if the US is “not well prepared” for future discussions, a “terrible incident could happen”, leaving analysts to conjecture what that “terrible incident” could be. The main bottleneck for the breakdown of talks is Washington’s unwillingness to provide concessions such as sanctions relief, which Washington is unprepared to relax unless Pyongyang takes reciprocal actions. The truism is that diplomacy shall not succeed unless Pyongyang makes a strategic decision to relinquish its nuclear program. The US is aware of this dimension as it itself does not want to offer any sanction reliefs to the North in the given situation.
As is its wont, Pyongyang swiftly plunged into propaganda blitz post-Stockholm by throwing punches at the US and introducing a new acronym to describe its broad demands: “complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy” (CIWH). The expression CIWH appears to be modelled after the US “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) policy towards nuclear program. This is near replay of the failed Hanoi summit in February 2019. It may be recalled, in Hanoi Kim kept pressing Trump to lift all sanctions implemented after 2016 and provide other concessions before providing proportionate reciprocal actions, provoking Trump to walk away. Now, in Stockholm, Kim’s negotiators repeated the same demands and then walked out after more than eight hours of discussion. With this any hope the US negotiators to capitulate in order to keep the dialogue open evaporated.
North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement one day after the nuclear talks in Stockholm broke down and said it has no intention of meeting with the US for more “sickening negotiations” unless the US takes “a substantial step to make complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy” toward North Korea. An English edition of the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) used the expression “CIWH,” translating the original statement. “Pyongyang used the words ‘complete’ and ‘irreversible’ before when accusing Washington’s CVID policy, but this is the first time that Pyongyang used an expression like CIWH in demanding withdrawal of sanctions”. This time around, North Korea seemed expressing its requirements in detail regarding sanctions relief.
What Gil did in Stockholm was just following Pyongyang’s negotiating strategy designed by Kim of employing threats and provocations in order to extort political and economic concessions from the US and its allies. For instance, just days prior to the Stockholm meeting, North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile designed to enhance deterrence and eventually provide the regime with a second strike capability. Kim probably believed that developing this crucial deterrent capability would enhance his negotiating leverage. The missile test was one of 12 ballistic missiles and rocket tests that North Korea conducted since May 2019 to threaten South Korea, Japan, and the US. This hardball tactics is typical of Kim’s diplomatic strategy.
There are other related developments that Kim might have factored into his negotiating style when it comes to the US. Kim is aware that Trump has been putting pressure on his two Asian allies – Japan and South Korea – to shoulder greater security burden, thereby raising questions about the US commitment on providing security to the allies in the wake of North Korean threat. In particular, Trump demanded that South Korea pays $5 billion for US troops in South Korean bases. He also decided to suspend the annual joint military large-scale exercises and called them a waste of money and “provocative” war games. These were music to Pyongyang, which only emboldened Kim to harden his stance on the US. Furthermore, Trump withdrew US troops from Northern Syria, heartening Kim.
The damaging consequence of this is that Trump runs risk of losing the trust in the US commitment and credibility as security partners. Trump hopes to clinch a similar deal with Kim in exchange of Pyongyang’s promises towards denuclearization. What this would mean, if happens, is Kim would have gained significant concessions as the US would have disengaged from the Korean Peninsula. The sole beneficiary of such a scenario unfolding would be Kim scoring a point in his strategy of “divide and conquer strategy”, which means weakening, if not breaking, the US-South Korea alliance and have a free field to conquer South Korea.
There is a possibility that Kim would have reason to believe that Trump is in greater need for a deal than him. There is reason for such a stance because in the wake of 2020 election in the US, Trump could be desperate to score some diplomatic success which could help him to garner some popularity for his presidential re-election bid. Because of such considerations, Kim hoped to score victory at Stockholm. Regretfully, that did not happen. However, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in continue to stick to their stance that there would be no sanctions relief without substantive progress toward denuclearisation and still expect a breakthrough, which Kim rejects outright.
How then is to break the diplomatic deadlock? As of now, none of Trump’s strategies have persuaded Kim to rethink the strategic value of his nuclear weapons program. The overwhelming opinion in the US and strategic community in Japan, South Korea and the West is that Trump needs to invigorate and implement “maximum pressure campaign” with a view to put unrelenting pressure and integrate “stronger and smarter sanctions, enhanced military deterrence, cyber operations, and information and influence activities”.
If Trump chooses such a strategy, the consequences would be unpalatable, counterproductive and tensions would inevitable heighten. But in the absence of this, the status quo would continue, which means Kim would continue to maintain or advance his nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, besides conducting periodic missile and weapons tests. Besides continuing diplomatic provocations, Kim shall have the option to actually use in wartime situations. Kim even “may feel emboldened to initiate a limited military operation to assert his dominance on the Korean peninsula”. It is desirable therefore Trump needs to review his policy and take the allies and partners on board to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and weapons issue. Unless Trump changes his strategy, a comprehensive roadmap for the dismantlement process of North Korea’s nuclear facilities would remain a pipedream.
There is a growing perception that Trump’s approach to Kim was always more of show than substance. Analysts Donald Kirk says that this show cannot go on. Other analysts feel that the minute the US agrees to concessions – sanctions relief – Kim would feel he has won and the US lost. By firing the hawkish John Bolton as his national security adviser, Trump tacitly helped Kim to remain inflexible in the nuclear talks. We need to remember that North Korea’s nuclear program was initiated by Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung. It was perpetuated by his father Kim Jong-Il and now remains the centre piece of Kim’s defence policy. That is not likely to change easily.
Throwing cold water over what transpired at Stockholm, North Korea expressed it has no intention to hold such “sickening” negotiations as Kim Myong-gil rejected US negotiator Stephen Biegun’s arguments, a litany of proposals, which were unacceptable to the North. The fundamental problem with Trump’s North Korean efforts cannot be called a policy as the North has not even considered giving up its nuclear weapons by any means.
From all what has transpired so far, it emerges that Pyongyang is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons; in fact not even considering such an option. As long as this is the case, no amount of diplomatic efforts shall make any difference, with or without maximum pressure. No wonder, the outcome at Stockholm was a predictable collapse. Pyongyang probably sensed Trump’s strategy before hand and decided to flaunt its military prowess in short-range missile tests prior to the Stockholm talks. This was despite Trump saying such tests were not in violation of any understanding reached with Kim in Singapore in June 2018, though recent test-firing a short-range missile from an under-water platform did arouse concerns.
North Korea’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun called the prototype for a submarine-launched ballistic missile a “time bomb” and “most fearful dagger” pointed at its enemies. In theory, a submarine might be able to launch such a missile, tipped with a nuclear warhead, while submerged undetected off the US west coast. It is possible that Kim was bent on taking revenge for the humiliation in Hanoi in February 2019 when Trump walked out after reaching so much and without a statement. Because of the denouement in Hanoi, which Kim blamed both Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he sacked his top adviser former intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, who was negotiating with Pompeo for quite some time. The situation at Stockholm was different. Kim Myong Gil presumably on orders from Pyongyang was not going to concede anything in return for whatever concessions the US might offer, which is why in the absence of any concessions, he just walked out.
In the given situation, can another summit between Trump and Kim, which Sweden would be happy to host, be the panacea? There is no guarantee that Kim would even agree for another summit as the North does not expect Trump can produce a proposal commensurate to North’s expectations. Thus the concern for the world remains unresolved. What Biegun put on the table was dubbed by the North as “a new calculation method”, whose exact nature was not clear but presumably called or prolonging the moratorium on testing nuclear warheads and international ballistic missiles in exchange for relief from sanctions. The likelihood of the North suspending its aging nuclear complex at Yongbyon and then fabricate warheads elsewhere in a step-by-step process immune from serious inspections could be a possibility but then the North surely would press for an “end-of-war” declaration under which the US would have to withdraw most of its 28,500 troops from South Korea. If that happens, the strategic dynamics in the region would have undergone dramatic change with domino effect on Japan as well. That seems to be an unlikely scenario. So, solution shall remain eluded and it is difficult to conjecture how it is likely to unfold in the coming months and years.