Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

U.S. and North Korea in holding pattern ahead of Kim New Year's address and second leaders' summit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The United States and North Korea have reached a holding pattern in denuclearization talks as both sides seek the upper hand ahead of a key New Year’s address by leader Kim Jong Un and a second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump next year. But criticism out of Pyongyang has been emerging as the North pushes back against U.S. refusals to ease crippling sanctions as a means of breaking the deadlock.

On Sunday, the North repeated its demand that sanctions be removed, with a Foreign Ministry-affiliated think tank warning that a failure to do so “will block the path to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula forever.”

The North has repeatedly pushed the U.S. for a reciprocal and incremental approach to denuclearization. It repeated that mantra Sunday in its Foreign Ministry statement.

“Since we know too well that the deep-rooted hostility between the DPRK and the U.S. cannot be redressed overnight, we have been proposing that the DPRK-U.S. relations be improved on a step-by-step approach of resolving what is feasible one by one, by giving priority to confidence building,” the statement said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name.

Without such quid quo pro, the North has warned that the talks could falter, and has even hinted of a potential return to the soaring tensions seen in 2017, when the two countries appeared on the brink of conflict.

These scenes have highlighted that Trump, far from his proclamations on Twitter that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” has merely papered over the seemingly intractable issue.

“It’s a reminder that the North Korean nuclear issue has been parked, not solved, by the Trump administration,” said Euan Graham, executive director of La Trobe Asia at Australia’s La Trobe University.

Observers point to a multitude of reports detailing that — despite its unilateral moratorium on atomic tests, longer-range missile launches and closure of key sites — North Korea continues to refine its nuclear weapons program.

“All of the steps Kim has taken this year on the nuclear program have inhibited his ability to test certain capabilities, but not to produce them,” said Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT. “The torrent of leaks on continued uranium enrichment, ballistic missile production, and improvements at missile operating bases all support the notion that Kim’s nuclear force may have recessed into the political background without visible tests, but it is improving and he is only getting stronger with time.”

This, however, may matter little to Trump, who has continued to battle the U.S. Justice Department over swirling allegations of his camp’s collusion with Russia in the 2016 election.

According to Narang, Trump simply doesn’t care that North Korea is not relinquishing its nukes — so long as it stays off the front pages with weapons tests.

“It is no longer sustainable to think that Trump is ignorant of North Korea’s continued production of fissile material and ballistic missiles,” Narang said, noting that the president had swatted away reports of North Korean nuclear activities, saying the information was already well known to the U.S.

“What he cares about is that it isn’t a political problem — that is, no missile or nuclear tests,” said Narang. “If one redefines ‘success’ and ‘denuclearization’ as no visible testing, as Trump has done, then it’s no surprise he doesn’t care about these leaks and reports.

“Trump probably rightly calculates that so long as the diplomatic process is ongoing, the testing moratorium will as well,” Narang added. “So he has an incentive to keep the reality show going.”

Pyongyang has shrewdly capitalized on the U.S. leader’s way of thinking, asking for a second Kim-Trump summit — a meeting that could give the president a needed foreign policy win — while bypassing lower-level talks that could lead to a rupture in the nuclear negotiations.

Trump has talked up the prospect of a second summit early next year, even saying that the location had been whittled down to three possible sites.

The North Koreans “have figured out that they can burn clock without these working-level meetings and take their shot at the second summit with Trump,” said Narang.

The working-level meetings, he said, “are only downside risk” for Pyongyang, because they risk U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, special representative for North Korea Steve Biegun or national security adviser John Bolton concluding that the North has no interest in disarming which, if said publicly, “would be a turd in the proverbial punch bowl and create a crisis for Trump about the sustainability of his ‘denuclearization through willful denial’ strategy.’ ”

Trump, on the other hand, may actually be more willing to give concessions on military exercises, the U.S. footprint in the region, an end of war declaration — and perhaps even sanctions relief, observers say.

As for Kim, experts say the North Korean leader’s annual New Year’s speech is likely to take an approach similar to that of his deputies, where he remains critical of Washington, but hints that the door remains open to progress between him and the U.S. president.

La Trobe’s Graham said the address, like in past years, will be closely scrutinized, and will likely reaffirm his proclaimed shift from a near-total focus on nuclear weapons development to the economy.

“I expect more byungjin (parallel development of nuclear weapons and the national economy) diplomacy: affirming Kim Jong Un’s desire to maintain international outreach and to pursue technological advances in the economic realm, but from a position of military strength,” Graham said.

In this year’s speech, Kim reiterated that his country had “completed” its nuclear weapons program — speaking of a “nuclear button” on his desk — but also held out an olive branch for participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a move that effectively laid the groundwork for his summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

But in the wake of Kim’s meetings with Trump, Moon, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Graham noted that expectations for progress at a second U.S.-North Korea summit would be high, especially considering the vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement that emerged from their first meeting in Singapore in June. In that document, Kim agreed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” though specific details of how this would happen were conspicuously absent.

“It’s hard to see how Kim Jong Un could get away with another vapid joint communique, like Singapore,” he said. “Bolton and others are probably resigned to a waiting game until if or when the president realizes he’s been played. But anything is possible with Trump, especially if a second summit presents an opportunity to divert attention from the Justice probe.”

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