Written by Liang Tuang Nah.
Image Credit: North Korea – Flag by Roman Harak/Flickr, License CC BY-SA 2.0.

Following the failure of the second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, the frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on the diplomatic front between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) could be seen in statements to North Korea’s parliament by Kim Jong-un on 12 April 2019. The DPRK’s leader implied that Washington needed to become more amenable to reaching compromise by the end of this year if Pyongyang was to agree to a third summit aimed at the negotiated denuclearisation of the North.

Since a ‘win-win’ outcome cannot be achieved at this point, the best that can be hoped for is a mutual compromise where both receive ‘half of what each wants’

As we now know, the Hanoi summit collapsed because the US was seeking to agree the complete nuclear disarmament of the DPRK before considering approval for lifting sanctions in their entirety. This stance was in conflict with Kim’s proposal for partial denuclearisation in return for piecemeal sanctions lifting, or the so-called ‘action for action’ framework favoured by Pyongyang in previous negotiations. To lessen American perceptions of having the upper hand in negotiations, Kim also touted the North Korean economy’s ability to weather international sanctions, hence his refusal to ‘obsess over summitry with the United States out of a thirst for sanctions relief’.

Trump’s calculus when dealing with the Kim regime

Donald Trump faces the conditioned reality that the Kim regime cannot be trusted. In all denuclearisation negotiations since the 1994 Agreed Framework, Pyongyang has eventually violated all its agreements with Washington, punctuated with either a long-range missile test or a nuclear detonation. Consequently, Trump has little faith in North Korea honouring any piecemeal agreements, and America has adopted a risk-averse stance that the North completely relinquish its nuclear weapons before sanctions are lifted.

Moreover, due to Pyongyang’s virulent anti-Americanism and dismal human rights record, the Kim regime suffers from near-universal hostility across the entire US political establishment. If Trump cuts any deal with Kim, it has to yield sufficient verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation to win grudging support from a majority in Congress and the Senate. Additionally, Trump cannot afford to cut an insubstantial deal with Kim because he cannot look weak to the American electorate that he will be asking to re-elect him as President in 2020.

At the Hanoi summit, Kim had apparently offered to decommission the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for partial sanctions relief. Yongbyon’s permanent shuttering would mean the loss of North Korea’s ability to produce plutonium and the partial loss of its uranium enrichment capability to fabricate nuclear explosives. Detailed inspections of Yongbyon could also uncover much intelligence about the DPRK’s nuclear programme. Despite this being a significant concession, Trump was not prepared to endorse the deal because any relaxation in sanctions might lead to lax enforcement of the remaining sanctions by China and Russia – North Korea’s sole ally and former patron state, respectively.

Kim’s inferred motivations when negotiating with Washington

Notwithstanding Kim’s declarations that his regime is ‘sanctions resistant’, the fact remains that the most recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC)-imposed sanctions of 2016, targeting the DPRK’s most productive exports like coal, iron and even seafood, have strangled the North Korean economy. Furthermore, UNSC sanctions dictate that all North Koreans working overseas, who contribute most of their income to the DPRK’s coffers, must be sent back home by 2019. Accordingly, the aggregate financial pressure exerted by these sanctions is surely being felt. This can be inferred from the fact that at the Hanoi summit, Kim and his negotiators were emphasising the need for sanctions relief, rather than pressing for security guarantees.

Turning to political considerations, Kim must be cognisant of the fact that the US presidential campaign will go into full swing next year. As such, Kim would need to strike some kind of deal with Trump by the end of this year, before the latter switches his concerns to domestic issues for his re-election bid.

What now?

If the US-DPRK denuclearisation negotiations were a cocktail, then the ingredients would consist of American distrust – both of North Korea’s contractual honour and of China and Russia adhering to sanctions – along with the Kim regime’s abysmal reputation. When mixed together with the DPRK’s economic desperation and America’s ambivalence about a deal due to the forthcoming elections, this would create a drink that is essentially unpalatable to both sides.

To distil the current state of affairs into their simplest form, we have the Trump administration demanding complete benefits before payment, with no sense of urgency, while the Kim regime urgently seeks an agreement on at least partial concurrent disarmament for sanctions relief before Trump’s presidential authority potentially expires, should he fail to win re-election in 2020.

As for how the Washington-Pyongyang deadlock might be broken, it is proposed that since a ‘win-win’ outcome cannot be achieved at this point, the best that can be hoped for is a mutual compromise where both receive ‘half of what each wants’. For Trump, he might be amenable to accepting phased disarmament if Kim were prepared to permanently decommission all the plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities – across the whole of North Korea, not only at Yongbyon – thereby freezing his nuclear warhead stockpile for good.

In return, sanctions targeting the North’s mineral and food exports would stay but UNSC exemptions could be given to allow economic cooperation between North and South Korea, such as the re-opening of the Kaesong industrial zone and other joint venture projects. If this could be agreed to, Trump would have the political ammunition he needed to counter domestic critics since more denuclearisation would have been achieved under his watch than that of any other President, while Kim would be able to win some economic breathing room, thereby preserving his political legitimacy.

If such progress can be made, there might be stronger optimism for further irreversible quid pro quos in later negotiations.

Liang Tuang Nah, PhD is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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