U.S.-North Korea

Elusive deal

Print edition : March 29, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump with Chairman Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27. Photo: DOUG MILLS/NYT

When the U.S. and North Korean teams, led by Trump and Kim respectively, met at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi on February 28. Photo: DOUG MILLS/NYT

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hanoi on February 27. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Photo: Getty Images

Talks between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un break down at the summit meeting in Hanoi, but there is hope that the two leaders will continue with productive dialogue.

Before United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met for their second summit meeting in Hanoi in late February, there were optimistic forecasts of a historic nuclear agreement being finally reached between the two countries. Trump, after all, had undertaken the long flight halfway round the world to meet with Kim in the Vietnamese capital. Most commentators and observers of the Korean peninsula had expected the U.S. to lift some of the draconian sanctions on North Korea in exchange for concessions from Pyongyang on denuclearisation.

But Trump, beleaguered politically at home, was grandiosely aiming for a deal under which North Korea would give up all its nuclear capabilities in exchange for U.S. promises of the gradual lifting of sanctions and the normalisation of bilateral relations. Three previous U.S. Presidents had tried to convince North Korea to do the same but to no avail. North Korea was under the impression that the Trump administration had agreed to a road map in Singapore that would lead to the gradual denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. After the June 2018 summit in Singapore, the joint statement issued by the two sides had agreed on coordinated moves in order to reach a final agreement on denuclearisation.

This included “freeze for freeze” steps whereby North Korea would stop further testing of nuclear weapons and missiles. In exchange, the U.S. would scale down its military exercises on the Korean peninsula. In the joint statement issued in Singapore, the U.S. had agreed to provide security guarantees to North Korea, which reaffirmed its “firm and unwavering commitment” to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Trump had also indicated to the North Korean leader in Singapore that he was not averse to making a declaration that would formally end the Korean War. The Korean War had ended with the signing of an armistice in 1953. The South Korean government was also in favour of such a declaration, which would legally replace the 1953 armistice agreement.

The U.S. President apparently has second thoughts now about the commitments he had made in Singapore, although he claims that he continues to have a good relationship with Chairman Kim and has not ruled out a third summit with him in the near future. At his news conference in Hanoi, Trump said that he intended to continue with the negotiations at a measured pace. The North Korean News Agency (KCNA) said that the two leaders “had agreed to keep in close touch with each other” and “continue productive dialogue”.

Iran had warned North Korea against trusting the U.S. As a senior Iranian official who was involved in the negotiations that led to the signing of his country’s nuclear accord with the U.S. observed during a visit to New Delhi, the agreement between Trump and Kim was only three pages long while the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement was a painstakingly drafted document consisting of more than 200 pages. Yet, the U.S. reneged on its commitments to Iran and the international community.

Trump tried to mislead international public opinion by saying that the Hanoi meeting ended abruptly without an agreement because North Korea insisted that the U.S. lift its sanctions in return for the dismantling of its most important nuclear facility in Yongbyon. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety—we could not do that,” Trump told the media in Hanoi. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was quick to rebut the assertions of Trump. He said that his country had only requested the lifting of those sanctions which impacted adversely the lives of ordinary people. In exchange, he said, North Korea had offered to “completely and permanently” dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility in the presence of U.S. inspectors.

North Korea’s stand

North Korea has been willing to give up its nuclear programme in exchange for iron-clad security guarantees since the time of the Clinton administration. “Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the U.S., it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programmes, put them under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ ceasefire of 1953. We should consider this offer. The unfortunate alternative is for the North Koreans to take actions they consider necessary to defend themselves from what they claim to fear the most: a military attack supported by the United States, along with efforts to change the political regime,” Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. President, had presciently observed in an article written for The Washington Post way back in November 2010.

“This kind of opportunity may never come again,” Ri Yong-ho told the media in Hanoi. According to some reports in the U.S. media, Trump may have been inclined to sign a deal but was dissuaded by his more hawkish officials like Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, and John Bolton, the National Security Adviser. Pompeo has been trying to pressure North Korea into disarming unilaterally by trying to set deadlines. During his last visit to Pyongyang, the capital, in July following the Singapore summit, Pompeo was denied an audience with Kim. After his visit, the North Korean media said that Pompeo had put forward “a unilateral and gangster like demand for unilateral denuclearisation”.

At the same time, North Korea said that it wanted to build on “the friendly relationship and trust” with Trump. Bolton has been one of the most vociferous proponents of regime change in North Korea. He announced in December that Trump was seeking a meeting again with Kim because the North Koreans had “not lived up to their commitments made in Singapore”. North Korea swallowed the insulting subtext of the message and signalled that it was willing to continue the dialogue with the U.S. In his New Year speech, Kim said that he would have to look for “a new way” if the U.S. continued with its punitive sanctions.

Kim said that despite the failure of the talks in Hanoi, his country would not resume nuclear and ballistic missile testing. He said: “We declare at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer, nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures.” He said that he was ready to meet with Trump again “and will make efforts to obtain without fail results which can be welcomed by the international community”.

Deft North Korean diplomacy has already reaped dividends, and it is just a matter of time before some of the sanctions are eased. Kim has been in regular consultations with President Xi Jinping. Most of North Korea’s commercial dealings are with China, which had gone along with the U.S. and implemented sanctions on North Korea. China too is not happy with North Korea’s nuclear programme.

A recent statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the government would never recognise North Korea as a nuclear state. The statement noted that China had not recognised India and Pakistan, too, as nuclear states. China must have been pleased by the North Korean government’s decision to stick to its commitments to abstain from nuclear testing despite the huge damage the sanctions have caused to North Korea’s economy. In November last year, North Korea had threatened to resume testing if the sanctions were not lifted.

Hard-hitting sanctions

What has deeply hurt the North Korean economy is China’s decision to stop imports of its coal and fish and stop the export of fuel after the U.S. initiated its latest and most stringent round of sanctions after 2016. These sanctions covered the country’s entire export sector. The North Korean economy, already on its knees, has lost billions of dollars in export earnings since then. The Trump administration had also banned the entry of humanitarian aid to the country.

Equally important for North Korea is its relationship with South Korea. The situation has dramatically improved in the Korean peninsula after the victory of Moon Jae-in last year in the presidential election. Moon is a veteran peace activist. After becoming President, he met with Kim thrice. In September last year, Moon went on a historic visit to Pyongyang. After the meeting between the two leaders, a “Pyongyang Declaration”, outlining the way forward for peace in the Korean peninsula, was signed. In that declaration too, North Korea committed to the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear complex if the U.S. took “corresponding measures”.

The declaration also stressed the need to expeditiously sign an “end of war declaration” to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. Hawks such as Pompeo and Bolton know that such a declaration would eventually encourage calls for a comprehensive peace treaty between the two Koreas and for the withdrawal of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Korean peninsula. Many South Koreans want the U.S. troops to leave the peninsula and allow the Korean people to sort out their problems between themselves. An overwhelming majority of South Koreans have a positive view of Kim and want to normalise relations with Pyongyang. The U.S. sanctions stand in the way.

The sanctions have undermined South Korea’s efforts to send in aid and restart industries set up with the help of big South Korean companies such as Hyundai. What South Korea fears is a flood of refugees streaming in from North Korea in case the economic situation deteriorates further. The demilitarised zone (DMZ) which divides the two countries is the most heavily armed border in the world. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is less than a hundred kilometres from the DMZ.

The South Korean President has been saying for some time that denuclearisation is only the first step for the Korean people. The goal, he says, is to finally “end the Cold War” in the peninsula. Since the middle of the last century, the U.S. has been interested only in regime change in North Korea and the establishment of a permanent military foothold in the Korean peninsula. Hardliners in the U.S. fear that if concessions are given to North Korea at this juncture, it would strengthen the hands of Moon and the peace lobby in South Korea.

Keeping in view the current sensibilities in the region, the Pentagon announced that two previously scheduled large-scale joint military exercises had been postponed. The U.S. and South Korean forces hold the “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” military exercises during the spring season. Trump justified his decision to cancel the exercises last year by saying that “it costs too much”. The real reason is that the new government in Seoul does not want to unnecessarily roil Pyongyang and jeopardise the prospect for a lasting peace on the peninsula.

Moon, speaking after the breakdown of talks between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, said that it was now all the more important for South Korea to play an “even more important role” as a mediator. He pledged to keep on working for “a complete settlement by any means”. He also spoke about “the yearning for reconciliation among Koreans”. The last thing the South Koreans want is a return to nuclear brinkmanship by Trump with his talk of “fire and fury”. Many of Trump’s closest aides want him to revert to his old position on North Korea.