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A nation must think before it acts.
At the time of writing, things appear to look bleak from Pyongyang’s vantage point. Though North Korea is hypothetically involved in negotiations with South Korea and the U.S. at the same time, the talks with the U.S. are the most important at the moment. After all, as former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the other day, without progress between the U.S. and North Korea, not much can happen in practice between South and North Korea. Both countries’ governments want to get to work on economic exchanges, but none of that can happen until the U.S. and North Korea exit their current stalemate. As of now, there seems to be little in terms of a consistent policy trajectory for either party. Still, both—that is, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump—want to keep talking.
North Korea wants to move the process forward, regardless of what happened in Hanoi, and the regime still sees focusing on Trump personally as its most viable strategy. On March 15, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, Choi Son Hui, made a statement that sounded, in short, very North Korean in tone and form.
Her statements about Kim Jong-un “weighing” whether or not to continue negotiations with the U.S. is a fairly typical test balloon that Pyongyang has launched to gage global reactions. Choi threatened that North Korea may pull out of the talks if the U.S. doesn’t take what North Korea considers to be corresponding measures—most likely, at least some sort of sanctions relief—to its moratorium on missile and nuclear tests.
A week and a half later, we have to assume that Kim is still weighing these options, if he ever was. A few days after Choi’s statement, North Korea appeared to have pulled back their staff from the inter-Korean liaison office. This looked like an ominous sign, until a few days later, the same staff members returned like nothing had ever happened. Donald Trump caught on to the test balloon, walking back sanctions that the U.S. had levied on two Chinese shipping companies for alleged sanctions violations. In a remarkably uncoordinated move—at this point, just one of many during this process—Trump ordered the sanctions withdrawn.
So both Trump and North Korea are signaling that they want to keep talking. The words of Choi’s statement in mid-March were more important than the rhetoric and tone. This is the way North Korean officials speak. The tone is nothing unusual, and substance matters most. Choi made sure to point out that it’s not Trump that North Korea holds a grudge against, but his advisors, and first and foremost, John Bolton. This was perhaps the main message. It’s long been part of the North Korean strategy to emphasize its respect for Trump personally, and like the U.S., North Korea has often highlighted the personal relationship between Kim and Trump. From AP News, which had a correspondent present at the briefing:
She suggested that while Trump was more willing to talk, an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust was created by the uncompromising demands of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. She said statements by senior Trump advisers since the summit have further worsened the climate.
So it’s not that North Korea doesn’t want to keep talking. They just want to talk to Trump, not to anyone else. Indeed, a transcript reviewed recently by NK News confirmed that Choi indeed claimed that President Trump had been open to sanctions relief at the Hanoi summit. But other officials, namely Bolton and Pompeo, according to Choi, held him back.
For all we know, such statements may just be part of Pyongyang’s strategy to make Trump seem like a “good cop” who really, genuinely wants to work with Kim, while he’s being manipulated by more hawkish underlings.
On the other hand, this may be part of an inevitable spiral back to “fire and fury” after Hanoi. We may well see rockier times ahead following the inconclusive summit, and working-level talks don’t seem to have rendered much as of yet. Despite the personal chemistry both Trump and North Korean spokespersons (Choi called it “mysteriously wonderful” in her March statement) constantly emphasize, positions between the two countries are as locked as they ever were.
Summits don’t really matter much as long as the countries’ negotiating positions are irreconcilable. Despite Choi’s claims to the contrary, North Korea’s demand that all sanctions since 2016 be lifted is essentially the same as demanding all essential sanctions be taken off, since it’s only with these sanctions that international economic pressure on North Korea became real and truly painful. This big ask may have been North Korea’s way of strategically setting out big asks to have some leeway for negotiation. At the same time, it illustrates that North Korea needs something tangible from the U.S. Despite the strange claim of the UN Panel of Experts report that smuggling renders sanctions “ineffective,” the North Korean economy is experiencing a crisis of sorts, though no disaster as of yet, as a result of the sanctions. Daily NK reported on March 26, for example, that one state-run factory in Pyongyang had shut down; it is just one of many others. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has gone back to a stance it had seemingly abandoned prior to Hanoi: all-at-once denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief. No wonder both South Korean left-wing politicians and North Korean officials have such strong distaste for John Bolton.
If these continue to remain Washington’s and Pyongyang’s positions in the negotiations, then it won’t matter how many flashy, public summits they hold. Both want to keep talking, and surely have some room for flexibility in their offers. For now, no one knows precisely where the fault lines lie, and that remains the key question.