Commentary / World

North Korea exploits its advantages in talks with U.S.

by Thomas Cynkin

Immediately following what appeared to be a productive, eight-hour exchange in Stockholm with U.S. negotiators led by the highly capable Steve Biegun, chief North Korean envoy Kim Myong Gil promptly told the media that the talks had “failed,” adding gratuitously that they were “very bad and sickening.”

This statement may well have been written well in advance: a pre-planned ploy by Pyongyang to ramp up the pressure on the United States to elicit one-sided concessions. The North Koreans, ever the hard bargainers, no doubt assess that they now have a short-term advantage over the U.S. and are seeking to exploit it.

North Korea may be a hermit kingdom whose leaders attempt to keep their country hermetically sealed against the foreign contamination of truth that could rouse their population and endanger regime stability; but its rulers make every effort to inform themselves of trends in the outside world.

They are no doubt well aware of the pressure U.S. President Donald Trump finds himself under to pull a diplomatic rabbit out of the hat, any hat, in the run-up to the next election. So far, his earnest initiative with the Taliban and overtures to Iran appear to have stalled.

Moreover, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his cronies cannot help but be aware of the Ukraine imbroglio and the swirl of impeachment-related activities in Washington. They may well assume that Trump would welcome the opportunity to change the narrative through a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough, one that highlighted the prowess of his deal-making.

Compounding these matters is the present fractured state of U.S. relations with its allies in Northeast Asia. Washington would prefer to hold discussions with the North with the full backing of a strong, united front of Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

Instead, America’s two strongest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, continue their downward spiral of hostility and blame. South Korean leaders keep drawing on a large reservoir of historic resentment, while senior Japanese officials, past and present, describe a feeling of “Korea fatigue” and a desire to focus their diplomatic efforts on more promising partners.

Washington has so far failed to arrest the downward momentum, and when Tokyo-Seoul relations bottom out, it is likely to be at a far lower point than the U.S. would wish, with considerable collateral damage to U.S. national security.

U.S. policy experts frequently caution against the continuing efforts by North Korea and China to drive wedges between the U.S. and its allies; in this instance, the allies themselves are willingly driving the wedges. This is vitiating Washington’s ability to negotiate from a position of strength with North Korea.

U.S.-China trade friction cannot help but serve as another impediment to a strong U.S. negotiating posture vis-a-vis North Korea. Beijing has stated that it would keep the North Korea problem compartmentalized from economic and other issues, and to a large extent it has honored that pledge.

At the same time, creeping antagonism between Beijing and Washington — for example, the U.S. has just announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials linked to abuse of Uighurs and other minorities — cannot help but circumscribe Beijing’s willingness to cooperate more actively with the U.S. on North Korea.

In this context, it may help explain why China has become so tolerant of sanctions-busting illicit ship-to-ship exchanges with North Korea, which bolster the North while corroding the U.S. negotiating position.

North Korea has typically attempted to infuse a sense of urgency, if not crisis, into negotiations in which it participates to wrest concessions from its interlocutors. In the run-up to the Stockholm negotiations, the North conducted a provocative campaign of missile launches, which included a direct launch into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Compounding matters, just one day after announcing the Stockholm talks, Pyongyang stated that it had tested a ballistic missile designed for submarine launch. These missile tests, which ostensibly violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, serve to add pressure on Washington to come to an agreement rapidly with North Korea in order to forestall further development of its missile programs, and, implicitly, its nuclear programs.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see how Kim Myong Gil’s disparaging post-discussion statement may have been more pre-planned political theater than sober assessment of the state of negotiations.

In the Stockholm talks, the U.S. side reportedly addressed all elements of the Trump-Kim document while adopting a creative and flexible approach. This incremental U.S. approach stands in marked contrast to earlier U.S. insistence on complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament (CVID) as a prerequisite for lifting sanctions.

However, from Pyongyang’s perspective, this falls short of the maximalist position promulgated by Kim in Hanoi. Even as the North is soberly reviewing the results of the Stockholm discussions, as may be assumed, Pyongyang appears to calculate that it has nothing to lose and a world to gain with a public, declaratory posture aimed at pressuring U.S. negotiators to be more flexible.

There may also be a sense of tit-for-tat; Trump walked out of the Hanoi summit, causing Kim to lose face, so North Korean recalcitrance at this juncture may in some measure represent payback.

In this context, while the U.S. promptly agreed to a Swedish invitation for follow-up discussions with the North, Pyongyang reportedly suggested that it might be willing to resume talks only at the beginning of December — while reiterating its ultimatum that the U.S. must make a major shift (read: concession) before the end of the year, or face a more hostile posture by North Korea.

Looking forward, the U.S. needs to be aware of North Korea’s perception that it holds certain advantages at the moment, and should work to redress or minimize them. First and foremost, Washington should work behind the scenes more vigorously to help Japan and South Korea mend fences, not only for the intrinsic value of such a move for U.S. and allied security, but also for the beneficial effect vis-a-vis allied posture toward North Korea.

The U.S. should also consider whether intensifying its focus on secondary sanctions will help deter Chinese tolerance of leakage in the sanctions regime. U.S. negotiators should persist in their creative, flexible approach, and should attempt to dissuade the North from further provocations by demonstrating that these will prove ineffective as a negotiating tool.

In this regard, it would be useful for Trump to emphasize publicly that he has empowered his negotiators and reposes full confidence in them, to disabuse the North Koreans of the notion that they can get a better deal from the president if they refuse to engage seriously with his team.

Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.