Trump and brinkmanship
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Could Pyongyang really be serious about “discontinuing with further denuclearization talks” with Washington? Or was it just bluffing to gain the upper hand in a tough game with seemingly endless innings? From its track record, the latter seems more likely.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui made the comment in Pyongyang last Friday — about two weeks after the collapse of the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28. It is noteworthy that she made the remarks after the Romanian Embassy asked her to describe the outcome of the Hanoi summit. Ambassadors and a limited number of foreign correspondents were invited to a press conference, and envoys alone were entitled to ask questions of the vice foreign minister. Her remarks were designed to be leaked to the outside world in the form of a Q&A — instead of a formally scripted statement.
Moreover, North Korea’s state media made no mention of the comments from Choe so that Pyongyang wouldn’t lose face with North Koreans, even if it goes back to negotiations with Washington over denuclearization.
As the war of nerves has escalated, the Moon Jae-in administration remains casual and hopeful. It insists both sides are committed to dialogue. That may be true, but it remains questionable whether the mood can really change toward a peaceful denuclearization.
The problem is that little progress has been made on the details. Stephen Biegun, special representative of the Trump administration for North Korea, admitted in a seminar last week that the two sides have not even agreed on the basic concept of denuclearization. North Korea proposed to abolish nuclear facilities in Yongbyon without disclosing exactly what they were referring to. In the Yongbyon complex, there are around 390 facilities, including those producing plutonium and enriching uranium. Negotiations cannot proceed unless Pyongyang clearly defines what facilities it is offering to disclose and dismantle.
Washington is rapidly losing patience. Even Biegun, who previously approved of a phased denuclearization outline from Pyongyang, stressed that there was a consensus in the Trump administration that sanctions cannot be eased before the complete denuclearization of North Korea. The mood is becoming increasingly hawkish in Washington: it wants either a big deal or no deal at all.
More importantly, Washington has put a deadline on denuclearization. In Hanoi, Trump said he wouldn’t rush to achieve it. But a senior White House official recently said Trump wants to denuclearize North Korea before his term ends in January 2021.
Under mounting pressure, Kim may be tempted to go back to his old trick of brinkmanship. To do that, however, two conditions should be met. First, he must pose a real threat to go to a nuclear war with the United States. But he no longer looks like a maniac who wouldn’t mind seeing his people wiped out. Second, brinkmanship can work when both sides have a keen sense of mutually assured destruction (MAD) when they go into a nuclear war. Brinkmanship won’t be of any use if the stronger party does not feel intimidated. The United States and the Soviet Union competitively built up thousands of nuclear weapons under the deterrence theory during the Cold War. Even though it has scores of nuclear bombs, it would be suicidal for North Korea to confront the United States.
In fact, Trump is a more skilled player in brinkmanship than Kim. He abruptly canceled the first planned summit with Kim in Singapore and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang. It was North Korea that yielded first. Put simply, Trump is not someone who can be bullied through brinkmanship.
Seoul must not rush to interfere in the intense psychological warfare between Washington and Pyongyang. Kim is already struggling with Trump’s demands. It could ruin the mood if the Moon administration hastily attempts to restart inter-Korean cooperation. Seoul must keep out if it really wants to facilitate denuclearization.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 19, Page 34