Playing with a bad hand
*The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.
On the back-to-back summits between the two Koreas and the United States and North Korea, I would give the results a B grade. It’s a generous one. Given the few details on the key topic of denuclearization, these meetings should not be getting more than a C. Still, the breakthrough momentum on relations between these longtime enemies deserves an A. In my evaluation, I’d say the final grade could be an A-minus or F depending on the follow-up developments.
After U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned empty-handed from a two-day trip to Pyongyang last week, I’d lower the score to a B-minus. The evaluation will not likely improve based on the tone of the latest visit, which should provide some guidance on how committed and fast North Korea will follow up on the agreement to complete denuclearization.
If the two summits had some kind of behind-the-scenes agreement beyond the vaguely-worded ceremonial joint declarations, the process would have picked up after Pompeo’s visit. But given the cold treatment that the top U.S. envoy received compared to his two previous visits, the two sides have clearly not agreed on any details about achieving denuclearization.
The stumbling block is hardly surprising, given the wide gap between Washington and Pyongyang on the terms of denuclearization and the rewards. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to the summit meeting to bargain for an end to sanctions. After China joined tougher UN sanctions in March last year, they must have inflicted real harm on the North Korean economy in the second half. If the summits had taken place at the peak of North Korean pain, negotiations might have been much easier. The inter-Korean summit in April that dramatically brought about a momentum of dialogue removed tensions of war, but it came too fast from the perspective of denuclearization.
South Korea overlooked the possibility of North Korea cozying up to China after reconciliatory gestures from the South and United States. Beijing would not have tolerated Pyongyang befriending Washington. It would have agreed to back Pyongyang in case talks with Washington stumble or break down. It might even be willing to ease sanctions. With Beijing watching his back, Kim was able to confront Trump, the self-proclaimed master of deals, with confidence.
Trump maintains that he has conceded nothing. Although he trusted Kim, he warned that things could go back to their pre-summit state if no progress is made on denuclearization. He would revive Washington’s maximum pressure campaign, a mix of harsh sanctions and a military option.
The military option, though, can no longer stand. As long as North Korea does not make another nuclear or missile provocation, no government or the American people would approve of a U.S. military strike on North Korea. Kim, who presented himself as a perfectly civil and capable leader before the world’s superpowers, is no longer regarded as the nuclear-obsessed maniac that Trump previously threatened with fire and fury.
Sanctions have also lost their muster. China will not outright disobey the United Nations, but it could turn a blind eye to commerce that cannot be easily traced. It could set up joint ventures or implicitly condone smuggling.
North Korea earned time for its economy. It cannot disobey the keystone of last year’s UN resolution — a ban on mineral resources such as coal and iron ore — because the shipments are too bulky to hide. If the ban stays intact, North Korea still loses more than half of its foreign currency revenue. If China remains committed to sanctions, the denuclearization process could be done in two years. It will not be easy to achieve if the sanctions regime breaks down, a growing possibility given the trade war between China and the United States.
Denuclearizing North Korea faces a structural challenge: the means that pushed the regime to talks have weakened. All will end well if the trust charm can work on Kim, but if good faith can change another leader, then social science textbooks will have to be rewritten. Washington appears to have run out of options on Pyongyang. It merely repeats the same line: sanctions will remain unless North Korea commits to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
Our president has vowed to take the steering wheel on peninsular affairs. He might not have meant to say that he would step aside once North Korea and the United States are on speaking terms, but he seems content on the sidelines. A good driver would have sought other routes in case of a traffic jam. So what’s his plan? From what we’ve seen so far, we may fail in the denuclearization test once again.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 11, Page 31
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