North Korea

10.05.18 Publication:

The key question to ask oneself while we wait for the historic summit between Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, and President Donald Trump of the United States, is which side is in the stronger position and which the weaker?


This would be important in any negotiation. But when one of the parties is the real estate mogul whose book (ghost-written by someone else, of course) was famously called “The Art of the Deal”, the question becomes even more crucial.


The American narrative under which this summit is occurring chiefly thanks to President Trump’s tough approach to Korea, in contrast with that of his predecessor Barack Obama, would suggest that the US is the strong side, and North Korea is the one hoping for some sort of peace.


It certainly is true that the Trump administration is taking a very tough approach to the development of nuclear weapons by what it sees as rogue states. President Trump’s decision to humiliate the leaders of France, Germany and Britain by on May 8th unilaterally scrapping the deal they signed, alongside the United States, with Iran only three years ago, confirms his preference for toughness.


What is not at all clear is where this will lead: what it will mean for the Transatlantic alliance, one of the core elements of global order since 1945; what it will mean for Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme, which had been suspended and partially dismantled in 2015 in return for the relaxation of economic sanctions; and what it will mean for talks with North Korea, a country which unlike Iran already has both nuclear bombs and the intercontinental ballistic missiles with which to deliver them.


Meanwhile, President Trump has also humiliated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, by choosing not to inform Japan about his decision to accept Kim Jong-un’s proposal of a summit, and by failing to grant Japan an exemption from the tariffs his administration has announced on steel and aluminium. Brazil, which is not a close ally, has been given an exemption but apparently Japan does not merit such a concession.


So America will embark on this summit with much weaker support from its traditional allies in Europe and Japan than in the past. North Korea will embark upon the talks with its long-time alliance with China in somewhat better shape than before, though we cannot know how good a shape that is. Kim Jong-un has made two visits to meet President Xi Jinping, in March and May, his first foreign trips since assuming power in 2011. 


The protocol pictures and reports from both visits made the young North Korean leader look like something of a supplicant to China’s new emperor. What this means, however, is that last year’s impression of hostility between the two countries, as China joined international sanctions against North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests, have been replaced by an image of some level of renewed diplomatic collaboration.


This image has subverted, in my view completely, the American narrative of a strong Trump and supplicant Kim. In fact, if you examine the real sequence of events, it looks much more as if Kim Jong-un will enter the talks as the stronger party, and Trump the weaker.

After all, last year North Korea finally achieved success in its decades-long quest to build a credible nuclear weapons capability. It made a nuclear test in September 2017 and then tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile in December. Within weeks, the North was engaged in powerful image-based diplomacy, forming a joint team with South Korea in the Winter Olympics, and then conducting the talks that led to the proposal of a first ever meeting between the North Korean and American leaders.


Far from being a diplomatic coup for Donald Trump, this has surely been a diplomatic coup for Kim Jong-un. Starting from a position of strength, having displayed his nuclear capabilities for all to see, Kim has secured a meeting that recognises his country’s importance, has presented himself as the advocate of denuclearisation and of peace, and has garnered some sentimental support from South Korea. 


Kim has, in effect, been able to put the onus on America to make him an offer. And if he decides that that offer is inadequate, he can expect to make America look as if it is to blame for any failure of the talks to make progress.


Much in this speculative narrative depends on what China’s view really is. It could be saying to Kim: denuclearise or either America or ourselves will crush you, first economically but if necessary militarily. But it is hard to see why China would say this, especially when America has just declared trade war on it, outlining demands so outrageous and outlandish no self-respecting country could possibly agree to. It has also just seen America break its word over Iran after just three years. 


It is much more likely that China has told Kim Jong-un that as long as he refrains from further provocative testing of missiles or nuclear weapons, or of otherwise threatening stability on the Korean peninsula, it will make sure that the economic pressure on the Hermit Kingdom is not too great. 


America, having just broken its word over Iran, will not enter these talks in a position in which its word can be expected to be taken on trust. President Trump might try to distinguish Iran and North Korea on the basis that North Korea is not currently sponsoring terrorist groups abroad or intervening in other countries’ conflicts. But this still doesn’t give him much leeway to be at all generous to Kim.


So we are left with a final question: what can Kim and Trump possibly offer each other? The idea of North Korean nuclear disarmament is a fantasy. So is the idea that America would lift economic sanctions before disarmament had been carefully verified. The best that can be expected is agreement on some sort of process for talks in the future. That will not count as a diplomatic coup, for either side.