Status quo as tactic
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.
The North Korea-U.S. working-level talks in Stockholm fell apart. It was disappointing news for people who thought another summit between the two countries — and even one between the two Koreas — could be held by the end of this year. But for people who understand the complicated process of the North Korean denuclearization, the breakdown was not surprising at all. Here’s why.
I expected the meeting to fail because North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would not accept the proposal by the United States for complete denuclearization at this point. Kim wants partial denuclearization in return for a drastic easing of all sanctions, security assurances for his regime and economic aid. And if Kim succeeds in getting what he wants, that means North Korea can be a de facto nuclear power. His wish was revealed in Hanoi in February, when Pyongyang tried to swap the dismantlement of its Yongbyon nuclear facilities for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Another reason why I anticipated the talks to break down is that Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump have different thoughts on the maintenance of the status quo: Kim sees it as a nightmare, whereas Trump is fine with it. Trump believes he can get re-elected next year as long as North Korea suspends nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests. On the other hand, Kim cannot gauge the aftereffects of economic crisis. Simply put, Trump is carefree while Kim is in a rush. The statements released by Washington and Pyongyang following their latest talks clearly contrasted one another. When Washington said the two countries “cannot overcome a legacy of 70 years of hostility” through a single meeting, Pyongyang said the United States “greatly disappointed us.”
Trump has little room for maneuvering ahead of next year’s election. He would probably want to tweet that he finally came to terms with Kim on a final and fully verified denuclearization and that he and Kim came up with a three-year roadmap that describes the complete demolition of nuclear facilities, materials, weapons and missiles within the regime, which starts with demolition of the Yongbyon nuclear facility within a month. Any denuclearization agreement far from this will be an obstacle to Trump’s re-election. Therefore, for Trump, maintaining the status quo is better than signing a bad deal.
Kim needed to interrupt Trump’s plan to keep the status quo. A card he can use to pressure Washington is the threat that his regime may resume ICBM tests to sabotage Trump’s re-election. But that decision is like a honeybee sting — North Korea could die after stinging the United States. There’s no way Trump, a “master negotiator,” would not know this. Fretted, Kim tried to provoke Trump by firing various types of missiles, but the United States is not moving one inch. If Pyongyang does resume its ICBM tests, the international community will support Washington’s “fire and fury” against the regime. This may actually help Trump’s re-election.
Trump’s strategy to maintain the status quo was likely applied to the working-level negotiation in Stockholm last week. In return for North Korea’s dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear compound plus something else, the United States apparently offered small incentives such as the improvement of bilateral ties or ways to improve the North Korean economy — without lifting any sanctions. The U.S. delegation could have come up with the idea of establishing liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, developing the Wonsan tourism area in Kangwon Province and supporting North Korea’s admission to an international financial body.
If the United States had suggested the suspension or lifting of sanctions that ban North Korea from exporting minerals — its core export item — then there’s a high chance this was premised on some kind of “big deal” which is proportionate to complete denuclearization. Some foreign news outlets reported that Washington suggested a three-year suspension of sanctions on North Korean minerals and textiles in return for the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities plus something else. But if the United States lifts the sanctions on mineral exports, that would weaken the momentum for the remaining denuclearization process, leading to a North Korean nuclear state.
The U.S. government and negotiation team are well aware of this. And yet, if Washington had proposed to Pyongyang an unequal trade-off that put the regime in a highly advantageous position, there’s no way to explain it other than attributing it to Trump’s sudden change of mind. Would he, however, seriously want a deal that would backfire on his attempt for re-election?
The fact that North Korea excoriated the United States after the breakdown of their working-level talks is another reason why it is hard to believe that Washington suggested the lifting of sanctions on minerals in exchange for an initial step of denuclearization. The regime sees the specific export ban as the most painful to its economy. Exports of minerals are the main source of income for North Korea’s military, ruling Worker’s Party and government organizations. It is also a source of earnings for Kim and other officials in the top echelons. When North Korean minerals took up 60 percent of the country’s total exports, the profit margin for them was nearly 80 percent. Given the relatively lower profit margin — 20 percent — for textiles, which is North Korea’s second major export item, the sanctions on minerals are far more important for the impoverished country. If the United States had suggested to lift those sanctions, the working-level meeting in Stockholm could have wrapped up successfully.
What is next? Working-level talks may be held again. But the possibility of holding a third U.S.-North summit by the end of the year looks slim. Instead, an opportunity may come after a crisis. If the North Korean economy is on the verge of collapse or if the confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington hits a dangerous level, Kim could be tempted to reconsider his negotiation goal. Until then, he will try to pressure the United States by menacing words and provocations.
Peace has yet to arrive. But we still have a chance. A concern is Trump changing his mind and lifting the minerals sanctions in return for the North’s “fake denuclearization” measures. In this case, South Korea should stick to its Plan B.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 16, Page 31