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    Asia: North Korea

    Diplomatic stalemate after Trump-Kim summit as North Korea rejects U.S. proposals 

    Following the historic Singapore summit where United States President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there were high hopes for an end to the nuclear threat emanating from the Korean Peninsula.  In truth, however, there were no concrete steps in place that would guarantee such an end, despite the enthusiastic rhetoric associated with the occasion.  By August 2018, the two sides were in a state of stalemate over the issue of denuclearization by Pyongyang. 

    After the Singapore summit, Trump believed he had achieved that end after his meeting with Kim, and tweeted as much.  He declared,  “North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer — sleep well tonight!” Weeks later, Trump again asserted that “we signed a wonderful paper saying they’re going to denuclearize their whole thing. It’s going to all happen.”

    For Kim Jong-un, however, the goal of the summit was not to relinquish his source of leverage. Instead, it was to stand on the world stage as a nnucelar-armed equal with the United States president.  To that end, he achieved his aim.  

    In the weeks after the Singapore summit, United States intelligence officials concluded that North Korea had no genuine intention to abandon its nuclear stockpile. According to reporting in late June 2018 by NBC News and the Washington Post. the North Korean regime was increasing its production of fuel for nuclear weapons and working to conceal its secret nuclear testing facilities. These activities were happening even as the United States had canceled its military training exercises in the Korean peninsula).   

    Despite that concession to the North, Pyongyang assumed a defiant posture in July 2018.  Following a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the North Korean government condemned the United States' demand for denuclearization as “gangster-like.”  A North Korean foreign ministry statement broadcast by the official KCNA news agency read as follows: "The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization."  The North Korean government further accused the United States of creating "trouble" by making the same demands as previous administrations. 

    It should be noted that North Korea's hostile tone presented a contrast from Pompeo's claim that there had been “good-faith negotiations” with counterparts in Pyongyang. 

    The contrasting assessments cast doubt on the success of Trump's big gamble.  First, it undermined the very purpose for engagement, suggesting that the two sides did not even have alignment on goals.  Second, it suggested that after it had extracted certain "gifts" from the United States, such as legitimacy on the international stage, sidestepping of human rights issue,  as well as an end to military exercises on the peninsula, North Korea  resorted to type.  Moreover, North Korea was continuing  its nuclear development and re-assuming its defiant posture.  

    While the diplomatic path was not yet closed as a result of these developments, it was clear that Trump's "victory lap" (akin to George W. Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" signage on a carrier during the Iraq War) had been premature.  

    The fact of the matter was that despite its billing as a breakthrough moment, the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim had not yielded any measurable results.  

    While both the slow pace forward -- of moving from initial meetings to actual denuclearization -- as well as the possible unreliability of North Korean promises were noted by diplomatic experts, the Trump administration nonetheless painted an extremely rosy picture of what could be accomplished.  In fact, some Trump stalwarts were predicting a Nobel Peace Prize for Trump for his North Korean efforts.  But the dogged, difficult, and vigorous work of diplomacy meant that end results would not come easily or quickly.  

    Seemingly unaware of these realities, the Washington Post reported that President Trump was  frustrated by the slow pace of progress, despite the positive spin he publicly demonstrated.  While Trump said to journalists, “Discussions are ongoing and they’re going very well,” his private demeanor on the matter -- according to this news report -- was quite different. 

    As July 2018 came to a close, it was unquestionably clear that North Korea was continuing its nuclear development program.  According to a report in the Washington Post, United States  intelligence agencies had concluded that North Korea was building new missiles. 

    Recent satellite imagery indicated that two liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were under development at a research facility in Sanumdong, just outside Pyongyang.  The facility at Sanumdong was believed to be the same one where ICMS were being housed that North Korea claimed could reach the United States. 

    These findings from the United States intelligence agencies were being leaked only weeks after President Trump met with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and publicly claimed that North Korea was "no longer a Nuclear Threat."  As noted by an anonymous United states official in an interview with the Washington Post, “We see them going to work, just as before.'

    The same type of nuclear development activity was being detected by other experts. The Sanumdong facility, according to  Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, was “not dead, by any stretch of the imagination."  Lewis added, “It’s active. We see shipping containers and vehicles coming and going. This is a facility where they build ICBMs and space-launch vehicles.”

    Nevertheless, the fact of the matter was that North Korea very likely believed that it could make an agreement with Trump without actually ceasing its nuclear development program. Going back to the start of 2018, in his New year's address, Kim Jong un vowed to advance North Korea's  "nuclear weapons research sector," saying that it "should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles."  That type of nuclear development was quite distinct was a nuclear test freeze.  

    With North Korea ceasing its nuclear test activity, the United States could claim that it had accomplished something concrete.  But at the same time, North Korea could continue its nuclear development unfettered.  The problem for President Trump in the United States, however, was that  a nuclear test freeze did not guarantee  the nuclear threat posed by North Korea was gone.  

    In the aftermath of the famous Trump-Kim summit, there were high hopes for some sort of diplomatic deal between North Korea and the United States.  After all, following his meeting with Kim Jong-un, President Trump had declared that the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula had been "largely solved" and that  North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat.  

    Since that time, however, planned meetings between North Korea and United States counterparts were cancelled and communications between the two sides have not been maintained. Moreover, North Korea was reported to be demanding more financial assistance than was initially discussed.  

    At the same time, North Korea was reneging on its promises to end its nuclear activities and destroy nuclear oriented facilities.  Of note was the fact that a missile-engine testing facility that was supposed to be destroyed remained standing, while North Korea was obfuscating its continuing nuclear development activities.

    By August 2018,  as discussed above, intelligence agencies in the United States had concluded that North Korea was building new missiles.  As well  satellite imagery indicated that two liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were under development at the  Sanumdong reserach facility where ICMS were being housed that could (according to the North) reach the United States. 

    The fact of the matter was that despite its billing as a breakthrough moment, the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim had not yielded any measurable results.  Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior member at New America, declared: “The summit statement is big on hyperbole and short on substance – it reads like it was written by the North Korean negotiating team.”

    While both the slow pace forward -- of moving from initial meetings to actual denuclearization -- as well as the possible unreliability of North Korean promises were noted by diplomatic experts, the Trump administration nonetheless painted an extremely rosy picture of what could be accomplished.  In fact, some Trump stalwarts were predicting a Nobel Peace Prize for Trump for his North Korean efforts.  But the dogged, difficult, and vigorous work of diplomacy meant that end results would not come easily or quickly.  

    Seemingly unaware of these realities, the Washington Post reported that President Trump was  frustrated by the slow pace of progress, despite the positive spin he publicly demonstrated.  While Trump said to journalists, “Discussions are ongoing and they’re going very well,” his private demeanor on the matter -- according to this news report -- was quite different. 

    As stated by Korea expert, Duyeon Kim of the Center for a New American Security in an interview with the Washington Post, “Trump has been hit with a strong dose of reality of North Korea’s negotiating style, which is always hard for Americans to ­understand."  Kim added, “I worry that Trump might lose patience with the length and complexities of negotiations that are common when dealing with North Korea and walk away and revert back to serious considerations of the military option." 

    Despite the slowness of the process -- perhaps even the intractability of the Korean nuclear problem -- Trump would have no choice but to stick with the current pathway for the immediate future.  Victor Cha, a Korea expert once tapped to be United states ambassador to South Korea, observed: “Trump is too vested to walk away right now. At least until after the midterms.”

    Note: The Washington Post reporting on the matter was sourced in various accounts from White House aides and State Department officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.

    By mid-August 2018, the diplomatic landscape between North Korea and the United States was in a state of stalemate.  The United States,  according to CNN, had 
    offered repeated proposals to North Korea on denuclearization, all of which were rejected.  

    Senior officials speaking on the basis of anonymity to CNN said that  "specific proposals for starting and proceeding to the end point of fully verified denuclearization,"  had been put forth to North Korea.  The proposals also included a timeline.  However, North Korea's response was negative, casting the offers as "ganster-like," and  rejecting them. 

    Some blame was being placed on the lack of specificity that emerged after the Trump-Kim summit wuth a joint declaration that indicated intent for future talks and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, but without any particularized action items, timelines, benchmarks, or other quantifiable registers that could stand as a blueprint for the path forward. The result was that  the United States interpreted the meeting as a diplomatic win, with North Korea doing the same, yet both remained at odds on the very central issue of denuclearization. 

    A sticking point for the North Koreans was the issue of economic sanctions.  The United States has demanded complete denuclearization by the North, with sanctions remaining in place until denuclearization could be verfied. North Korea was demanding an end to sanctions along with a peace treaty prior to making any significant denuclearization moves.  

    For North Korea, the belief was that it had already made a significant move by halting missile testing and repatriating the bodies of Americans. As such, there was no reason for the North Koreans to unilaterally relinquish their nuclear weapons arsenal, which Kim Jong-un has called a “treasured sword of justice.” Moreover, Kim Jong-un never actually committed to ending its nuclear development.
    Thus, North Korea was telegraphing the view that by demanding denuclearization, the  United States was acting in bad faith.  

    An official statement from Pyongyang noted that North Korea had taken "practical denuclearization steps as discontinuing nuclear test and ICBM test fire" and "broadminded measures" like the repatriation of remains of United States personnel from the Korean War.  But North Korea argued that "the U.S. responded to our expectation by inciting international sanctions and pressure."

    On a more positive note, North Korea and South Korea agreed to meet again at a 
    summit in Pyongyang in September 2018.  It was to be seen if that meeting would produce measurable results. 


     

    Written by:

    Denise Youngblood Coleman,  PhD. 

    President and Editor in Chief

    CountryWatch Inc.
     



    --  Aug. 12, 2018

     

     

     

     

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