What but a mysterious force could propel the Chollima horse to speeds of 1,000 ri a day? Could it be the very same mysterious force that Kim Jong-un says brought Donald Trump and he together at the DMZ? Or is there some other “spooky action at a distance” at work? KCNA cites Kim Jong-un as saying a mysterious force is weaving its magic here
“Kim Jong Un said that it was the good personal relations with President Trump that made such a dramatic meeting possible at just a one day’s notice, noting that the relations would continue to produce good results unpredictable by others and work as a mysterious force overcoming manifold difficulties and obstacles in the future, too.”
Mystery exists as to how the third encounter between Kim and Trump was arranged. Trump himself attributed it to a surprise Friday tweet inviting Kim to the DMZ for a meet and greet, Kim Jong-un has also asserted this, and the claim has been widely reported in the media. The two, however, recently exchanged letters and Donald Trump indicated beforehand that he would be bringing both Mike Pompeo and Stephen Biegun to South Korea after the Osaka G20 Summit in Japan. That led to discussion among analysts and commentators into the possibility that moves were afoot for the arrangement of a third summit. That third meeting ended up coming much quicker than anyone anticipated, with Chollima speed if you will. It could well be that the DMZ meeting was not as spontaneous as hitherto assumed, and if so the recent revival in relations (assuming no back channel) was a function of Kim Jong-un’s letter to Donald Trump, marking the first anniversary of the Singapore summit, rather than Trump’s predilection for Twitter.
I am not in possession of information to be definitive either way, and we will need more information prior to making a firm judgement.
The other interesting detail regards President Trump’s brief foray north of the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, the first of a sitting US President. That has not been lost on the North Koreans themselves, who have emphasised this point domestically. That functions as a type of recognition of the DPRK as a state, and Pyongyang may positively see it as something that falls within the ambit of the Singapore Declaration where the US agreed to abandon what North Korea calls its hostile policy toward it. Was this Kim’s price for a DMZ meeting or was it Trump’s idea? Trump has stated that should Kim have rejected the entreaty contained in his Friday tweet it would have made him look a fool so Kim could have used that leverage to extract a waltz to the North. Even should Trump have offered stepping across the MDL into the North, he surely would have done so on the understanding that such a gesture was needed to get Kim’s agreement to a meet and greet at the DMZ.
My initial impression of the optics was that Kim allowed Trump to make him look like an idiot, something akin to an exotic zoo exhibition paraded before the world’s media. Trump got his media blitz, just as the Democrat’s began their presidential primary debates in earnest, and the western media could indulge some more at the altar of the Trump bump. But Kim got his waltz across the DMZ, and that (also revival of working level talks, more of which later) saved him some face.
That’s interesting, recall also the mysterious force above, because critical commentary of the DMZ meeting has emphasised that Trump, dangerously, has too personal an outlook on denuclearisation diplomacy with North Korea. He thinks a personal chemistry exists between he and Kim, and that this can overcome obstacles rather than the slog and minutiae of working level meetings. But we may ask whether that really applies the other way around, that it is Kim Jong-un that has too much invested in Trump’s supposed willingness and ability to act as a political gadfly raising a new dawn in US-DPRK relations. I can’t help but have the feeling that it is Trump that has had Kim, not Kim Trump.
North Korea’s post Hanoi policy is that it is giving the US until the end of the year to change its calculation, as it puts Washington’s insistence on CVID, so one could argue that Kim’s presence at the DMZ was in accord with its previously announced policy stance. But, then again, there have been North Korean statements saying that there would be no third meeting between Kim and Trump until Washington changes its calculation. The DMZ meeting has changed nothing in that regard. The US is still committed to CVID before all else and North Korea is still committed to the Hanoi position of shutting down Yongbyon in return for the lifting of UN sanctions targeting the civil sectors of its economy as the next step in a reciprocal step-by-step process. Yet, despite no apparent change in Washington’s calculation Kim agreed to the DMZ meeting. Which brings us back to the question; did Trump make Kim look like an idiot, a bit like Gaddafi when Tony Blair paraded the exotica before the world’s cameras after the former signed on to the so called Libya model? That’s a comparison the North Koreans would wince at.
That’s where the business of the possible resumption of working level meetings, at below the head of state level, enters the picture. Both Pyongyang and Washington have stated that this is the most concrete outcome of the DMZ meeting. That would be a positive and welcome development, as from before Hanoi, a point I have belaboured here, we have been riding an escalation ladder with North Korea and the resumption of working level talks arrests that process. We should be careful, however, because working level meetings after Singapore achieved little and, moreover, they were mischaracterised in deceptive ways by Biegun.
The New York Times reports that there have been discussions within the Trump administration about “changing its calculation” as Pyongyang puts it. The New York Times reports that Washington may offer Kim a modified version of North Korea’s Yongbyon offer made at Hanoi. In exchange for a fissile material production cutoff, where North Korea shuts all its fissile material production facilities not just those located at Yongbyon, the United States would support partial sanctions relief. That would be, in effect, a nuclear freeze agreement. The sanctions relief would be significant not just intrinsically, but also because it would allow North and South Korea to deepen economic cooperation.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, the freeze agreement would include, according to The New York Times report, an intrusive inspections regime in North Korea something, it appears, even beyond the Additional Protocol to the IAEA model safeguards agreement. It is hard to see North Korea agreeing to this, and, secondly, the prospect of an aggressively intrusive verification regime could be a mechanism developed by Bolton and Pompeo to scuttle future working level meetings all the while blaming North Korea for the collapse of diplomacy. Hawks in the Republican establishment have long used the politics of verification to scupper arms control processes they don’t like. Inspectors roaming North Korea reminds one of the UNSCOM saga in Iraq, which if repeated in North Korea could lead to a crisis. A repeat of Operation Desert Fox would lead to nuclear war.
What could be offered, instead, is North Korea’s declaring its fissile material production facilities, if not all its fuel cycle facilities, a commitment to cease fissile material production, and the use of national technical means of verification to monitor North Korea’s end of the bargain. This is not the same as dismantlement, but the problem with dismantlement, as the Iran case shows, is that sanctions are more readily reversible than dismantlement. The declaration would not represent a target list for American planners, as after Hanoi (if not before), Pyongyang would be aware of how much Washington knows regarding its fissile material production facilities. The target list that matters is real time information on the crown jewels of the KPA strategic rocket forces. But that would be to ask more than what Pyongyang offered at Hanoi, so more than partial, reversible, sanctions relief would need to be offered in return. That additional item could be a declaration of the end of the Korean War. North Korea has previously emphasised that a declaration of its fissile material production facilities needs to be reciprocated by a declaration of the end of the Korean War, a declaration-for-declaration deal as it were.
Whether the Kim-Trump dalliance at the DMZ leads to anything substantive, that it amounts to more than reality TV, depends on what happens at the subsequent working level meetings, and that in turn depends on whether Washington has changed its calculation. The New York Times reports Biegun as saying the US position has not changed, which is to say that a nuclear freeze agreement involving the shutting down of all North Korea’s fissile material production facilities in exchange for sanctions relief is not on offer. If true, Biegun is effectively saying that the DMZ meeting was another episode of Love Island. My own view is that these things are best influenced than predicted. The extent to which Trump’s meeting with Kim is reality TV depends on whether you stop watching and enter the set as an actor influencing developments on the stage. The public should not allow itself to be spectators, rather the public should demand rational policy outcomes and act to achieve them should those demands fall on deaf ears. Taking the Yongbyon offer made at Hanoi was just such a rational approach, as it provides for a measure of strategic stability and opened the prospect of formally ending the Korean War. North Korea’s nuclear disarmament in one fell swoop is not realistic, but the rational approach is the approach that just so happens to be suppressed in the public sphere by the corporate media. The nuclear threat emanating from North Korea comes from the Korean War the continued reality of which forecloses anything other than the forceful nuclear disarmament of North Korea.
We should also note that the US is a global power, and what it does in one area is rarely thought of in discrete terms. Washington’s manner of calculation, to borrow from Pyongyang, usually considers the impact of policy in other regions or other policy concerns. The United States could be offering North Korea working level meetings designed not to achieve a serious outcome, so keeping Kim Jong-un on his best behaviour, while it swings its attention to a conflict of its own making with Iran.
Critics, but not just critics, of the DMZ meeting continue to be focused on a debate regarding the extent to which North Korea is committed to denuclearisation. That’s the wrong question. The right question to ask is; is the United States committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula? North Korea is committed to denuclearisation understood as lowering the salience of nuclear deterrence in its international relations. That’s not disarmament, but it was never considered as such by North Korea. The nuclear weapon states regard denuclearisation to be a process short of disarmament, as something involving deemphasising the importance of nuclear weapons in their declaratory policy, and North Korea has simply taken a leaf out of their book. Is the United States willing to place matters other than nuclear weapons at the centre of its relationship with North Korea? Both sides to the debate, liberals and neocons on the one hand and Trump and friends on the other, show little sign of a commitment to denuclearisation. The more Americans indulge their nuclear obsession, ironically, the more likely nuclear war with North Korea becomes.