The prospect of working level talks between the United States and North Korea was the major tangible outcome of the Panmunjom tete a tete between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. As we know these were convened in Stockholm on October 5, after a lot of uncertainty in the interim period as to whether they would proceed, and thereupon quickly collapsed. As we have witnessed repeatedly since the Singapore process began, we were presented with two versions as to the why and wherefore, and since Singapore, on every occasion, the North Korean version has proved the more accurate.
You’d put your money on Pyongyang’s version again being more in tune with the facts, but not if you’re paid by a foreign policy think tank or a major university of course.
Heading into the summit a report by Alex Ward at Vox stated
“Here’s the offer, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations: The United Nations would suspend sanctions on Pyongyang’s textile and coal exports for 36 months in exchange for the verifiable closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and another measure, most likely the end of North Korea’s uranium enrichment.”
This offer was perceived as being closer to North Korea’s position on how diplomacy should proceed, that is via a step-by-step reciprocal process as opposed to Trump’s hitherto big bang approach of all or nothing. Limited, and reversible, sanctions suspension for 36 months in exchange for verified and irreversible dismantlement of much of, if not all, North Korea’s fissile material production facilities isn’t too reciprocal. We tend to forget the emphasis on reciprocal in step-by-step reciprocal process. Tit-for-tat is how North Korea has rolled since the 1990s. However, North Korea claims that’s not what happened at Stockholm. That is, the US didn’t make the above offer.
The North Koreans allege the US, note post Bolton, made its familiar demand of complete, verified and irreversible dismantlement prior to the making of concessions of its own. The US, by contrast, stated that the talks were long and fruitful and expressed a willingness to resume them in two weeks. The North Koreans stated it would be highly unlikely Washington would change its position in two weeks, and so again we are at an impasse.
The Ward report does not discuss timing. That is would sanctions suspension follow Yongbyon+ verified dismantlement, or would it be in place as the process (verifiably) proceeded?
Now there are two interesting things here, well worth reflecting upon. The first is that Western commentators and analysts, often referred to as foreign policy experts in the mainstream media (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting link), widely repeated the charge Pyongyang was responsible for the breakdown at Stockholm. North Korea, it was often claimed, was repeating a familiar brinkmanship style of diplomacy to extract maximum concessions. The second is that the US ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, stated that Pyongyang was to blame for the collapse of working level talks because it wanted “everything” in exchange for “nothing,” a familiar charge (recall Trump and Pompeo at Hanoi).
Notice the second is obviously false. North Korea, as stated above, has consistently called for a step-by-step reciprocal process. It has consistently, since Hanoi, called for Washington to change what Pyongyang dubs its “method of calculation” with the emphasis, to repeat, on the reciprocal. That’s been the bedrock North Korean position, there’s no mystery here, for that is precisely what was called for in the Panmunjom Declaration between Kim Jong-un and the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. There both Pyongyang and Seoul agreed that the North’s offering up Yongbyon in exchange for “suitable concessions,” which we know to be relief from sanctions targeting its civilian economy. That makes “the method of calculation” not just Kim’s but also Moon’s. However, the South has made further progress on building North-South ties contingent on North Korea agreeing with the US on a denuclearisation accord. Yet Pyongyang sees Washington as the main barrier here, which explains, to no small degree, a lot of the anti Seoul rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang recently. So, to repeat, the Harry Harris charge is false and thus we have the familiar pattern; the North Korean characterisation is more accurate than the American.
See how that affects the widespread charge made by our erstwhile foreign policy experts? Their position rests on the supposition that North Korea changed its formulation, “its method of calculation” as it were, but Pyongyang has been consistent on this since the Panmunjom Declaration. This then leads to a further hypothesis, for the question then becomes; what of the Ward report? This report has played an important role in the way commentators and analysts have framed Stockholm because it suggests Pyongyang was made a reasonable interim offer, a change from the hitherto all or nothing US stance. It is possible that North Korea rejected this on account of the factors mentioned above. It is also possible that the report, based on information from US official sources, was a means for those sources to plant information in the public sphere suggesting a change in US stance while at Stockholm the usual fare would be offered Pyongyang. That way, the North Koreans could take the hit with the foreign policy experts reliably playing their assigned role.
It’s difficult to tell. I’d like to see more information but given what we know the second remains a plausible hypothesis. These two hypotheses, we might point out, are not mutually exclusive.
Now a report has just come out, originally from a South Korean outlet, that adds mud to the water, or you might say clears the water. This report claims that at Stockholm the US offered North Korea assistance in the construction of the Kalma Beach Tourist Resort not far from Wonsan (at a location where North Korea previously engaged in massed artillery exercises). This was made in exchange for steps toward denuclearisation, steps unspecified we might say. In some English language reports this has been translated as assistance for Kalma in exchange for denuclearisation. Others stress partial denuclearisation. The translation of the original South Korean source suggests partial denuclearisation. Note in the Ward report there’s no mention of Kalma.
What might have happened is this. North Korea was offered an interim deal whereby it commits to the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon (perhaps also the Kangson enrichment plant) in exchange for assistance with the completion of the Kalma Beach Tourist Resort. If so, then the deal Washington offered at Stockholm was little more than a joke. I can see a North Korean negotiating team up and walking when learning of it and muttering that the whole affair was “sickening” as they did. Interestingly enough Donald Trump in the last few days has talked about what he calls a “rebuild,” seemingly in reference to Kalma, and Kim Jong-un has just completed on the spot guidance at the joint North-South Mt Kumgang tourist resort stating North Korea will rebuild it on its own without input from Seoul (or Washington presumably).
My bet is that at Stockholm the United States remained committed to its position of disarmament before all else or offered a deal considered well below what Pyongyang has called for since the Panmunjom Declaration and the Hanoi summit. Both are consistent with the Melian Dialogue like aspect to all this, something I’ve been writing about consistently for quite a while now. The United States, Athens, is not making an offer to Melos, North Korea, that it perceives as being below its dignity as a great power. North Korea must be seen to suffer what it must, and that requires a deal which is *not* reciprocal in nature.
There were some other useful tidbits during this period for us to consider. Not long after North Korea’s test of its new Pukguksong-3 SLBM the European members of the UN Security Council called for North Korea “to engage in good faith meaningful negotiations with the United States, and to take concrete steps with a view to abandoning all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” That provides a good guide as to what Washington might have demanded at Stockholm, i.e. concrete steps toward CVID (perhaps Yongbyon plus Kangson), but the Europeans make no indication of what Washington offered in return. It quite simply had to be less than what Pyongyang called for at Hanoi given North Korea’s repeated refrain regarding “the method of calculation.” For their part the North Koreans demanded Washington make “concrete and irreversible” steps toward sanctions relief. You get the drift.
Now the North Koreans made some interesting statements hot on the heels of this. North Korean officials stated, following its recent missile tests, should the matter be brought to the Security Council Pyongyang would be compelled to take measures to defend its sovereignty, and to reversing commitments made in April 2018 prior to the Singapore process starting. Regarding those measures the North’s UN representative said they wouldn’t necessarily involve a missile test. In the April 2018 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party North Korea announced the suspension of long range missile and nuclear weapons testing. In recent comments the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces of South Korea stated that Pyongyang could quickly restore tunnels 3 and 4 at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. North Korea has always oversold its supposed demolition work at Punggye-ri. Should North Korea reverse the April 2018 Plenum restoration work at Punggye-ri might be its first physical manifestation, rather than a long range missile test. Don’t forget the April 2018 policy pronouncement included not just missile and nuclear testing. Pledges were made there regarding nonproliferation that might be reversed too in future.
This all, of course, brings us to the white horse as not long after Pyongyang’s UN representative spoke Kim Jong-un ascended Mt Paektu upon a white horse. This was widely ridiculed, with widespread howls of laughter doubtless picked up by some exoplanet SETI programme in the far reaches of the galaxy. Yet so easy do we forget. What of the swashbuckling cowboy Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t averse to straddling a white horse or two in demonstration of his presidential virality? The same Ronald Reagan, according to Abram Sofaer, of the Hoover Institution (affiliated to Stanford University), whose “spirit seems to stride over the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.”
Oh, and what about the Wallop Senate drive of Malcolm Wallop (an arch Reaganite conservative). Oh, and the original Marlboro Man and so on. The absurdities of North Korean propaganda one can understand, but the very same absurdities exhibited by our own propaganda systems we don’t even notice. This brainwashing under freedom, most especially among the educated and the expert, is surely the more interesting to contemplate.
At any rate, there has been some hefty speculation as to what the white horse was all about. It’s been noted, correctly, that Kim Jong-un has visited Mt Paektu prior to making important policy pronouncements or shifts in policy. The relevant KCNA statement concluded;
“Having witnessed the great moments of his thinking atop Mt Paektu, all the officials accompanying him were convinced with overflowing emotion and joy that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again and make a step forward in the Korean revolution.”
What could this be? It could be the “new way” that Kim spoke of in his 2019 new year address that he’d pursue should the peace process collapse. That new way was not specified then, and nor is it now. It might involve, as I have argued for yonks, a type of “threat that leaves something to chance” as Pyongyang manipulates external perceptions of risk to extract concessions that cannot be extracted through diplomacy. At the domestic level, to speculate, it might be like Gorbachev’s “Uskoreniye” or “Acceleration” reform policy pursued prior to Perestroika. An important facet of this was accelerating the scientific and technological basis of the Soviet production system. Kim Jong-un, who has placed especial emphasis on science and technology, might announce something similar. The white horse has been used as a symbol of the Chollima movement of the Kim Il-sung era which stressed speeding up the rate of industrial production. This was a type of Stakhanovism that has never been officially renounced in North Korea, with a Stakhanovite labelled a “Chollima Rider.” I suspect this would partially involve the use of nuclear energy, something that Kim spoke of in the 2019 new year address without further elaborating.
The bottom line of Stockholm it seems to me is this. We have until the new year to strike a deal with Pyongyang. Recent comments from Pyongyang suggest the Hanoi deal remains on the table. We have a choice. We can go back to 2017, if not something altogether worse, or we accept the arrangement North Korea offered at Hanoi. Yongbyon for sanctions relief. I would suggest that choosing the latter is the better, more rational way, to proceed assuming security is a priority as opposed to considerations of power. That would require changing the way we think about North Korea, as it entails accepting a relationship of mutual deterrence. It’s very hard to do this so long as our perception of North Korea is dominated by the narrative of weird little North Korea, “another country” to paraphrase Bruce Cumings, as the more weird we regard North Korea to be the less apt are we to accept a posture of mutual deterrence with it. The episode of the white horse is instructive. It shows, whatever it shows regarding North Korea, that our attitude and disposition toward this other country remains unconducive for the ready acceptance of mutual deterrence.
But don’t be worryin’ y’all. There is that spirit striding on a white horse watching over us like a warm and friendly ghost. Some call it Ronald Reagan. Some call it the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. Some call it Star Wars. Call it what you like. It ain’t gonna save your arse all the same.