Nuclear Diplomacy After the Kim-Xi Summit: Uncertainty and the Paradox of Self-Reference

When it comes to the gathering nuclear diplomacy with North Korea the surprises are coming thick and fast. I submit that this might be a problem.

The latest instalment was the surprise summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping in Beijing. We saw a special train make its way to Beijing, which naturally sparked speculation about who was, or were, the special passengers. Most analysts were quick to surmise that the occupant surely could not be Kim Jong-un, but I was not so sure and was hesitant to proclaim on the matter. That was not because of some special insight, rather a consequence of a condition many suffer from namely Yugo nostalgia.

In socialist Yugoslavia there was a resplendent special train of state, the Plavi Voz or the “Blue Train,” which was used by Marshal Tito. When I saw images of the North Korean train this week in China I thought instantly of the Blue Train and figured the odds are fairly good that it’s hauling a very special passenger for as we know North Korea has its version of the Plavi Voz, which the Kim family has been quite fond of.

Turns out the instinct was correct. The images below are of the two trains. This is socialism with vanguardist characteristics. I’ve got a few images here. I admit this is a bit over the top, but Marshal Tito liked to give foreign dignitaries a trip on the Plavi Voz so I’m thinking; did the Kim’s of North Korea get their idea for a grand train from Tito in Yugoslavia?

The summit between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping carries two major consequences, judging by the official communique, that I would like to focus on. The first is that the summit has put relations between Pyongyang and Beijing back on track, a fact of no small moment to which I return, and secondly it led to a reaffirmation of North Korea’s long standing commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. The latter is nothing new, despite what has been often stated in the media over the past few days, and is basically on a par with President Obama’s declaration in Prague in support of the abolition of nuclear weapons.

This is North Korea’s statement of position on denuclearisation as it appears in the summit communique released by Xinhua, the official press agency of China

Kim said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is starting to get better, as the DPRK has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.

“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” he said.

Kim said that the DPRK is determined to transform the inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation and hold summit between the heads of the two sides.

The DPRK is willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries, he said.

“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” said Kim

That has been the official, public, stance that North Korea has adopted throughout the nuclear crisis from George HW Bush to today. North Korea would not be the first state to pursue a nuclear weapons programme, or nuclear weapons modernisation programme, whilst at the same time being publicly committed to denuclearisation or nuclear disarmament.

Notice the emphasis on “progressive and synchronous measures.” That’s a reference to North Korea’s long standing policy that denuclearisation must be accompanied by progressive “like-for-like” actions by all parties to the nuclear crisis especially the United States. Such progressive like-for-like actions lead to denuclearisation rather than start with it from the get-go.

What we have here is not a concession, but a reaffirmation of long standing policy. There are two things of importance that I would like to say about this aspect of the communique. The first is that “progressive and synchronous measures,” like for like measures as it were, doesn’t appear, from issue to issue, to be Trump’s style of deal making and nor is it current US policy. It appears that President Trump thinks that he has compelled North Korea to a summit meeting with the United States under a new pledge of denuclearisation, and that any deal reached with North Korea would be heavily stacked in favour of the United States. North Korea is indicating that it won’t capitulate to a one sided diplomatic process. That is what “progressive and synchronous” means.

The second point concerns the very, surprising, origins of the looming Kim-Trump summit meeting. I have long felt that elements in both South Korea and North Korea are concerned that outside powers, especially Japan and the United States, are interested in using the nuclear crisis to advance their own geopolitical interests in Northeast Asia and are angling to limit any nuclear conflict to the Korean peninsula. At the very worst that would involve a “bloody strike” against North Korea on the supposition that North Korea’s limited ICBM capability can be neutralised militarily. Such a conflict would represent the end of Korean civilisation whatever its impact upon the United States.

As the two Korea’s entered a diplomatic process to lower tensions and deny others a potential battlefield or a permanent crisis more functional for those outside of Korean than within, they both had an interest in showing the United States that denuclearisation was indeed on the agenda of the inter Korean talks. So South Korea made an effort to placate its great power ally by bringing up denuclearisation. So North Korea made an effort to placate its negotiating partner by trotting out its long standing policy of denuclearisation.

But nudge, nudge, wink, wink the United States could be relied upon to stick to its no talks position unless North Korea first makes concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament. But, surprise, surprise, President Trump agreed to a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un when he was offered one without so much as even consulting his advisers and policy officials. So we are where we are.

The very way the Kim-Trump summit has come about suggests to us that the summit meeting will not see North Korea divest itself of its nuclear weapons. President Trump, but moreover the United States, is unpredictable and his, and its, future policy actions are riddled with uncertainty. Would Kim Jong-un seriously rid himself of his security guarantee in exchange for a pledge of security from a President so unpredictable? The very summit itself underscores Trump’s unpredictability. This is the summit’s central paradox, a paradox of self-reference almost.

Nuclear deterrence, in part, functions as a hedge against uncertainty, and uncertainty is just as important in international relations as it is in economics. Surely it is rational for North Korea, under the uncertainty provoked by as unpredictable a White House as this one, to continue to invest in nuclear deterrence no matter what Trump might say and do.

Jeffrey Lewis points out that the actions of the United States, including of people in positions of influence in the current administration, have quite the track record when it comes to making easily retractable, indeed retracted, security guarantees in exchange for disarmament. Gaddafi and Libya do indeed readily come to mind. Moreover, so does Marshal Tito and his train. The image below is from Marshal Tito’s funeral. That’s how Kim Jong-un might want to go. Via his train. Sure beats a bayonet shoved up one’s arse, Gaddafi style.

But the Lewis analysis just scratches the surface, in my view. Consider the diplomatic history specifically regarding the Korean peninsula from North Korea’s point of view. We regard North Korea as an irrational, unpredictable, rogue state. That image has underpinned appeals to hardline policy approaches, and one can see it in the case made for intrawar deterrence or nuclear warfighting in the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review as well.

However, a bit of mirror imaging might be apt. Just what face do we project to North Korea? North Korea has seen a hardline Bush I administration, a hardline Clinton administration then change tack to meaningful diplomacy, or made to change tack by adroit track two diplomacy by Jimmy Carter, which was quickly followed thereafter by a bellicose Bush II administration, which itself changed tack and then pursued six party talks only to scuttle them when agreement was reached so returning back to hostility which was picked up, pretty much without interruption, by Obama. Then we had Trump presummit and now Trump the summiteer.

From Pyongyang’s standpoint the United States is unpredictable, and an agreement reached by one administration can be, and has been, scuttled by the next, indeed it can be, and has been, scuttled by the very administration that made an agreement. That’s not something that makes nuclear disarmament altogether a rational policy option for North Korea.

One could even regard the acceleration of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme from 2012 onward under Kim Jong-un as being, partly, based on this view of the US as a noncredible negotiating partner. That is, the diplomatic history as seen through North Korean eyes shows the United States not to be a serious interlocutor and so a security guarantee is best reached through nuclear deterrence not diplomacy. Furthermore, we have often regarded evidence of North Korean foot dragging and skulduggery, for instance on uranium enrichment, as evidence of a prior unshakeable commitment to nuclear deterrence but, given the non-linear diplomatic history, perhaps these can be regarded as a hedge against uncertainty.

The problem here isn’t an unshakable North Korean commitment to nuclear deterrence. The problem is that, contrary to the dominant image, North Korea is a rational actor pursuing a rational policy under a cloud of uncertainty partly caused by our variable actions.

In other words, when we attribute unpredictability and irrationality to North Korea perhaps we are really being self-referential. Just like with Russia and the so called “escalate-to-deescalate” nuclear strategy.

Regarding the other aspect of the Kim-Xi summit that I promised to comment upon, namely the improvement of relations between North Korea and China, this is of no less significance. The communique lists four ways in which relations between Beijing and Pyongyang shall improve post summit with the third catching my eye

Thirdly, actively advance peaceful development. Socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, and the DPRK’s socialist construction has also ushered in a new historical period. We are ready to make joint efforts with the DPRK side, conform to the trend of the times, hold high the banner of peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit, continuously improve the wellbeing of the two peoples, and make positive contribution to regional peace, stability and development

Taken literally this means that China pledges to be an important partner of North Korea as Pyongyang continues to pursue its policy of economic development. That pledge has been made without any concession on denuclearisation by North Korea, as noted. Should China and North Korea take the view that a Kim-Trump summit would fail to develop a “like-for-like” approach to denuclearisation because of Trump then post-summit Washington cannot rely upon Beijing to support the further tightening of economic sanctions.

However, something of even more significance could be hinted at here. As I wrote immediately after the Kim-Trump summit was announced there exists good reason to suppose that the summit will fail, is meant to fail, and such failure could be used by hawks to justify a military strike against North Korea. No pledge of assistance under such circumstances is made in the Kim-Xi communique but the summit itself and the references to peace and security in the communique might have been designed to put the ball of uncertainty back in Washington’s court.