It was April 2017 when the whole world was watching Pyongyang and its nuclear experiments. The dual-track policy that keeps engagement open for its good behavior while seeking to impose sanctions for its bad behaviour – i.e. the ‘strategic patience’ approach adopted by former president Barack Obama – had been long gone and substituted by a ‘heads-on’ policy by President Donald J. Trump.
In that period, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson had been dispatched towards North Korean waters as a deterrent against further intercontinental ballistic missile experiments brought on by Kim Jong-Un’s orders. However, the Supreme Leader revealed himself as a resilient character and continued pursuing his nuclear program which he then completed in December 2017.
Kim Jong-Un’s plans ultimately succeeded and in May 2018 he met South Korean President Moon Jae-In at Panmunjon for peace talks as part of the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit. In that occasion, North Korea’s plans where clearly visible. Firstly, sanctions were strangling the North Korean economy – which was already increasingly isolated from global markets. Secondly, Kim Jong-Un was seeking a diplomatic shift in favor of South Korea rather than China, which was already accounting for 90% of North Korean trade, thus implying an extensive economic interference.
From there on, the three-way relations between North Korea, South Korea and the United States have started being quite stable. Indeed, the Singapore Summit held on June 12th, 2018 painted a vivid portrait of what diplomacy can truly create. On that occasion, U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un met for the first time and shook hands, setting a historical precedent for the two countries international relations.
And so it happened. On February 27th, 2019 the two leaders met in Hanoi, Vietnam. This was the occasion for a second round of talks. Trump and Kim had the occasion to speak behind closed doors for about 30 minutes while enjoying a small dinner at the Metropole Hotel of the Vietnamese capital. However, the topics discussed during the official part of the encounter were strictly correlated to sanctions and denuclearization. The ultimate positions were different. The United States reported that North Korea wanted a complete and instant removal of all 11 sanctions imposed by the United Nations in exchange for the complete closing of the Yongbyon nuclear plant.
The sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council were passed all unanimously and over time measures have expanded to ban military equipment, industrial machinery and the export of fish and agricultural products. Furthermore, sanctions may freeze assets of individuals involved in the country’s nuclear program. But the Koreans immediately corrected the American version saying they just asked to be freed from sanctions between 2016 and 2017 (5 out of 11 United Nations resolutions) in exchange for the closing of the “plutonium-creating” Yongbyon nuclear plant. However, the United States not only were not intentioned to remove any of the sanctions, but they surely wanted the Yongbyon nuclear plant closed and possibly a ‘end-of-war declaration’ (to finally overrule the 1953 armistice). Clearly, these were positions Pyongyang could have never accepted.
Immediately, the public opinion arose asking why such claims had been brought to the table if unobtainable. In fact, North Korean and American claims were quite incompatible as the United States tried really hard to obtain all the conditions by leveraging against Kim Jong-Un. But this ‘all-in’ technique ultimately failed and President Trump was forced to leave the table of negotiations. In later hours, President Trump responded to the public saying that even though the negotiations had failed, both countries were still willing to pursue a regime of constructive communications. At that point, the two heads of State could only travel back to their countries thinking about the aftermath.
What Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump brought back home was a bittersweet sentiment. The 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections are rather near and Trump knows he has to start winning some matches in foreign relations and – unfortunately for him – the Hanoi Summit wasn’t really a victory. Another issue that may jeopardize President Donald Trump’s re-election is the hearing of the testimony of his personal ex-lawyer Michael Cohen in the case relating possible Russian interferences in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. Furthermore, not only is it a matter of election but also a matter of Congressional relations. In fact, the Democrats will be holding President Trump accountable for this failure and seeing the influence they gained in Congress during mid-term elections it will be difficult for him to maneuver politically as he once did.
On the other hand, Kim Jong-Un is most likely going to be seen by his fellow citizens as a hero for resisting American pressures and interferences. However, he might also be facing difficulties in dealing with his military Generals as the agreements in slowing and ultimately stopping the nuclear programs could lead to a lowering of military prestige. Ultimately, we must wait for a new summit to be held and for new accords to be drafted and discussed upon.
Meanwhile, South Korea and China are impatiently waiting to understand what they can lay their hands on. President Xi Jinping has been rubbing his hands thinking about the failure of the Hanoi Summit. Just as in 2017, China is still the main supplier for North Korean goods and this will keep growing. In fact, both Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-In are hoping to gain further influence on North Korea and ultimately push the United States into being a marginal actor in the region. The only difference between China and South Korea is the capability to respond to the increasing nuclear power of North Korea. China is surely safer than South Korea and for this reason Moon Jae-In has to necessarily apply balanced policies against and in favor of the United States which remains without any doubts a major contributor in the South Korean defense sector.
In conclusion, the United States and North Korea seem to be avoiding to solve once and for all the conundrums that affect each other. A reason for this might include that better agreement conditions must be created by both parties in order for them to be willing to bind themselves. Efforts on bilateral communications and diplomacy are being pursued by the two countries. This opening still appears to be a remarkable achievement and shall continue until North Korea will be desperate for economic help. What could tip the scale towards one actor or the other is the contribution of regional powers (such as China or South Korea) in favour or against one of them.