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    Asia: North Korea
     
    Special Report: 

    From belligerence and brinkmanship to diplomacy and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula

    Belligerence, brinkmanship, and threatening war rhetoric has long marked the tone from North Korea, prompting anxieties about nuclear conflict in East Asia. But the election of a new government in South Korea, along with the unifying climate of the Winter Olympics, provided a foundation for a diplomatic breakthrough between the two Koreas. By extension, it also served to cool the fiery rhetorical exchanges between North Korea and the United States. Is rapprochement between the two Koreas sustainable?  Will direct talks between North Korea and the United States chart a new path forward?  And will North Korea keep its shock promise to suspend its nuclear program? 
     
    Synopsis
     
    At the start of 2017, North Korea warned that it could attack enemies  “at any time” and blamed the United States for the development of its missile program. This announcement came on the heels of the New Year’s message of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in which he said that his country was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the mainland of the United States. Then, in February 2017, ahead of a meeting between the leaders of the United States and China,  North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.  
     
    In the backdrop of this development, United States President Donald Trump warned that the United States would act alone against North Korea if China failed to do so. But Trump credited Chinese President Xi Jinping with working to resolve the threat emanating from Pyongyang following a meeting with the Chinese leader. China was soon offering North Korea an incentive to back off from its nuclear activities and ambitions by promising its protection.  However, North Korea appeared undeterred, carried out a missile launch, and promised to "ruthlessly ravage" the United States if it attacked North Korea. Building on that threat,  North Korea soon warned of a nuclear attack on the United States in response to any aggression from that country, as well as regular missile testing in defiance of international law.  To that end, another ballistic missile was fired and although it ended in failure, it nonetheless demonstrated North Korea's continued defiance.  
     
    In May 2017, North Korea successfully test-fired a new strategic ballistic missile named Hwasong-12 and indicated some significant advances in North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile technology.  Of note was North Korea's technical advances in the realms of engine performance and mastery of re-entry -- two key areas that could aid North Korea in successfully attacking the United States with a missile mounted with a nuclear warhead. For his part, United States President Donald Trump warned of a "major, major conflict with North Korea" while United States lawmakers were concerned about a lack of a clear strategy for dealing with North Korea.   
     
    As May 2017 came to an end, North Korea had fired a short-range  Scud-class ballistic missile, prompting protest from Japan and warnings of consequences.  
     
    At the start of July 2017, North Korea carried out an apparent two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB) test.  The test was a wake-up call to the United States that North Korean missiles could hit Hawaii and Alaska, and perhaps even the American mainland.  The only question was whether or not North Korea had actually developed the technology to mount miniaturized nuclear warheads on long-range missiles and if such devices could withstand re-entry.  A second ICBM test with significant range by North Korea at the end of July 2017  underlined the clear and president danger to global security posed by that country, as well as the increasing threat to the American mainland.  
     
    In August 2017,  the United Nations imposed harsh new sanctions on North Korea for its latest missile aggression in violation of international law.  
     
    These measures yielded no measurable constraining effect on North Korea, which at the start of September 2017 carried out its sixth nuclear test -- this time believed to be a hydrogen bomb capable of destroying an entire city. According to Pyongyang, the hydrogen bomb was capable of fitting on an intercontinental ballistic missile and reaching the mainland United States.  Pyongyang further claimed "perfect success" in this hydrogen bomb test endeavor.
     
    In the aftermath of the sixth nuclear test by North Korea, United States President Donald Trump repeatedly threatened that country with "total destruction."  Then, following Trump's address to the United Nations General Assembly, the North Korean foreign minister Ro Yong Ho warned that Trump aggressive rhetoric had "lit the wick of war." 
     
    As the year 2017 came to a close, North Korea had carried out an apparent ICBM test demonstrating a possible ability to strike the United States mainland directly. War rhetoric intensified as a result.
     
    In the first part of 2018, the combination of a new pro-diplomacy South Korean government (elected in May 2017), as well as the Winter Olympics in South Korea, offered an opportunity for renewed dialogue with North Korea.  That foundation of re-engagement appeared to have facilitated further interest in rapprochement, with the discussion of North Korean denuclearization on the table in exchange for security guarantees.  

    The diplomatic breakthrough showed signs of being viable as bilateral talks between the two Koreas were on tap for April 2018. Then, in a shock development in March 2018, United States President Donald Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un of North Korea for landmark face to face negotiations in May or June 2018.  The shock developments continued in April 2018 when it was revealed that the United States director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, had met secretly with Kim Jong-un.  

    While the world was digesting that news, North Korea on April 20, 2018 stunned the world when it announced that it had completed its work on developing nuclear weapons and was thus shutting down its nuclear test site suspending its nuclear program. North Korea further said that it was turning its attention to economic growth. 

    It was too soon to tell if North Korea would keep this promise or if this was a public statement intended to set the table for impending talks with South Korea and the United States.  Nevertheless, the declaration had to be understood as unprecedented and potentially positive for global stability. 

    Note:  It should be noted that North Korea holds the dubious distinction of being the only country to have performed a nuclear test in the coalition century.
     
    Is war with North Korea inevitable?  
     
    At the start of December 2017, United States national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said that the possibility of war with North Korea was "increasing every day." Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum, he said: "I think it's increasing every day."  McMaster cited the latest North Korean missile launch, which managed unprecedented height and range, to emphasize the looming threat posed by North Korea.  He said, "The greatest immediate threat to the United States and to the world is the threat posed by the rogue regime in North Korea. Every time he conducts a missile launch, a nuclear test, he gets better."
     
    Anxieties over this North Korean threat would be only slightly assuaged by the knowledge that the latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch demonstrated range and height, but not necessarily delivery and payload capacity. It was unknown if this missile, launched on Nov. 28, 2017, could conceivably carry a payload of around 1,000 pounds (the type of capacity actually needed for it to be effective).  Also a matter of debate is the whether or not the reentry vehicle, which returns the payload to the surface of the earth's surface, actually withstood the pressure of re-entry.
     
    In his New Year's address, North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, warned the United States against aggressive actions, warning that he was capable of attacking the entirety of the United States.  In his annual address, Kim Jong-un said, "The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat."
     
    On Jan. 2, 2018, United States President Donald Trump reacted to this warning from Kim Jong-un by saying that his nuclear button was bigger and more effective than the North Korean leader's nuclear button. Using his favorite social media outlet, Twitter, Trump said: "North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times. Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"
     
    Critics warned that Trump's tweet was akin to baiting North Korea into an armed conflict at a time when the two Koreas were considering bilateral talks ahead of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.  Despite Trump's tweet rhetoric, some progress was made between the two Koreas on Jan. 3, 2018, when they agreed to reconnect the hotline between the two countries that was shut down in early 2016.  Then, a week later, an agreement was forged for North Korea to participate at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.  The move was regarded as a foundation for improving tense relations between the two Koreas. 
     
    In the background of this diplomatic success -- limited as it might be -- was the continued war rhetoric emanating from the Trump White House. There were growing fears that threats of nuclear war could provoke Pyongyang to miscalculate, launch its own strike, and thus spark a war.  
     
    Those fears would likely pale in the wake of a report by the Wall Street Journal that the Trump administration was considering a military strike against North Korean targets, but in a limited manner, and thus not intended to provoke an actual war on the Korean Peninsula, the Wall Street Journal reports. The  "bloody nose" strategy was characterized by the Wall Street Journal as follows:  "React to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior."  Such a move would risk paranoid North Korea retaliating without restraint. The result could well be a catastrophe. 
     
    Some political analysts in the United States, such as speechwriter and commentator Marc Thiessen, have argued that "Trump should take out the site where North Korea just launched a missile."  Such a move, however, would be largely ineffective.  First, North Korea is in possession of mobile missile systems, allowing it to test fire from open pads.  Thus, "taking out" one particular site would hardly curtail the North Korean missile and nuclear program.  Second, if such a strike were to be taken as limited punitive action, it was highly likely to be misinterpreted by the North Koreans as a first strike attack, thus provoking a North Korean response, with catastrophic consequences.  Among the more realistic results would be a full-blown war on the border between the two Koreas, given the presence of United States troops in the South.  Such a war, with nuclear-armed players involved, could quite literally mean the prospect of nuclear conflict.  Meanwhile, the United States would have to consider the fact that its existing missile defense architecture has not been reliably tested. 
     
    It should be noted that in November 2017, prompted by an inquiry from Democratic members of Congress, the Pentagon made clear that the only way to ensure military success would be a ground invasion of North Korea. 
     
    Non-classified assessments have indicated that the possible death toll of a war on the Korean peninsula would be more than 100,000 in the Seoul metropolitan area within 48 hours. That staggering number would be the result even without North Korea using weapons of mass destruction. Over a longer time horizon of three months, the Pentagon reported that a war on the Korean peninsula would yield up to 300,000 death -- including United States military victims stationed in South Korea.  A sobering finding from the  Congressional Research Service was that a military conflict on the Korean peninsula could affect upwards of 25 million people on either side of the border, including at least 100,000 American citizens.
     
    A war in East Asia -- one that involved United States military victims -- would prompt greater United States military deployment to the region, escalating the conflict, at a time when United States forces were engaged elsewhere in the world from Afghanistan to the Middle East to Africa. 
     
    Meanwhile, there was the matter of a North Korean response.  As discussed above, a military response using conventional weapons alone would likely be devastating -- not only for South Korea but for the United States, which would inevitably be drawn into the conflict.  There was also the possibility that the North could target Japan with a missile attack, thus spurring a regional war of the type unseen in recent times. The Pentagon has warned that North Korea might consider the use of biological weapons as an option.  That, of course, was aside from the possibility that a paranoid North Korea under attack could very well launch a nuclear attack, which would risk radioactive contamination across the region.  The scope of the damage would be devastating. 
     
    In truth, the North Korean question has yielded no good answer from the international community. It was clear that harsh rhetoric, sanctions, and even hyperbolic threats have had little effect on North Korea,  which has continued to act in flagrant violation of international law.  But the continuing threat of war from the Trump administration must, likewise, be regarded with sobriety, given the catastrophic consequences a war in East Asia would actually produce. 
     
    Still, North Korea was making clear that it was yet functioning as a rational actor. With the central impetus of the leader of North Korea -- Kim Jong-un -- being regime survival, it was not surprising that his most reliable path to self-preservation was via the North Korean missile development and nuclear proliferation program.  In fact, North Korea had already expressly stated that it had no interest in diplomacy, particularly with the Trump administration in the United States, until it had demonstrated "its offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States."  As stated by Kim Jong-un in unambiguous terms: "Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the United States and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about military options." 
     
    From Olympics to denuclearization: Is a diplomatic breakthrough viable? 
     
    After two years of war-provoking rhetoric on the Korean peninsula, sustained missile launches by the North and a continuing nuclear development program, and a dearth of inter-Korean engagement, some progress was made between the two Koreas at the start of 2018. 
     
    On Jan. 3, 2018, North Korea and South Korea agreed to reconnect the hotline between the two countries that was shut down in early 2016. Around the same period in early 2016, South Korea suspended cooperation with North Korea at a joint economic project at the Kaesong Industrial complex in response to a rocket launch by the North. Since then, tensions on the Korean peninsula have only increased due to North Korea's aggressive nuclear and missile launch activity in the following year (2017).  As such, the news of the reconnected hotline between the two Koreas was regarded as a positive sign.  
     
    In another move towards much-desired peace-building, it was announced that delegations from  North Korea and South Korea would meet for high-level talks at the Peace House in the border village of Panmunjom.  It should be noted that Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ)  is regarded as a "truce village." Divided into two parts by a military demarcation line, one side of Panmunjom is North Korean territory while the other side is under South Korean jurisdiction.
     
    On the agenda would be North Korean participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which were set to take place in South Korea in February 2018.  These negotiations were being viewed as a foundation for further talks and a means to improve inter-Korean relations.
     
    Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea's unification minister explained: "When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions." While rapprochement was still a destination in the distance, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected partially for his championing of negotiations with the North,  said that the Winter Olympics in his country would serve as a "groundbreaking chance" to improve relations with North Korea.  
     
    On Jan. 9, 2018, following high-level bilateral negotiations, an agreement was reached to facilitate North Korea's participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.  The development marked a significant breakthrough and a victory for vigorous diplomacy between the two countries, which met for their first high-level negotiations in more than two years.  
     
    In a further development,  the two Koreas agreed to hold military talks, with an eye on decreasing border tensions.  Military talks, though, would not include the subject of denuclearization.  In the long term, it was unknown if this engagement track -- with denuclearization off the table -- would be sustainable.  In the short term, these moves were collectively being regarded as trust-building exercises, with the broad goal of ameliorating ties between the North and South at stake. 
     
    Note that by mid-January 2018, although South Korea invited North Korea to engage in wide and broad-ranging talks in anticipation of the Olympics, the North curtailed the discussion to the matter of sending an art troupe to the South.
     
    But in February 2018, as the 2018 Olympics opened in Pyeongchang, South Korea, diplomatic progress had been made.  Indeed, North Korean athletes in downhill skiing, figure skating, and hockey were set to compete at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.  Even more remarkable was the  fact that  North Koreans marched under one flag with South Koreans during the opening ceremony.  
     
    With that foundation set, further progress on the diplomatic scene between the two Koreas came when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for talks. The invitation was delivered by Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, who was leading the North Korean Olympic delegation in South Korea.
     
    The invitation would nonetheless place South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a difficult position, as he would have to do a careful balancing act of encouraging dialogue with  North Korea, while at the same time, maintaining the United States'  “maximum pressure” approach to the North.  In truth, Moon Jae-in was elected to power partially on his promise to engage North Korea diplomatically, with South Koreans cognizant that the only path to stability on the Korean peninsula was that of the diplomatic variety.  However, given the capriciousness and uncertainty of the North Korean leader, the South could not afford to alienate its closest ally -- the United States.  
     
    With this balancing act in mind, Moon Jae-in reacted cautiously to the offer for talks with Pyongyang by saying that he wanted to “create the environment for that to be able to happen.” He also urged  North Korea to “actively pursue” dialogue with the United States.  Still, the South Korean president seemed to accept the offer of dialogue in Pyongyang, saying that the two Koreas should "make it happen."  As well, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon expressed  hope that "the right conditions" could be created for a summit of the two Koreas to be held, and called for support from the international community.
     
    The difficulty of the diplomatic track was emphasized when the leader of the United States Olympic delegation, Vice President Mike Pence, refused to stand and applaud for the entrance of the unified Korean team at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.  Pence also referred to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un as “the most tyrannical” on earth and did not acknowledge the North Korean delegation, even when they were in close proximity. Before he departed Pyeongchang, Pence said in an interview with the media that he intended “to express American resolve regarding North Korea.”  Pence also said that the United States and South Korea remained united in their effort "to work very closely to continue and intensify the maximum-pressure campaign that is underway against the regime in Pyongyang.”  Pence's resolute stance was somewhat undermined by reports that a meeting had been planned between Pence and the North Koreans in South Korea, but the delegation from the North withdrew from the scheduled meeting at the last minute.
     
    With a drive towards rapprochement, South Korea was keen to stay on the diplomatic track. To that end, on Feb. 25, 2018, South Korea announced  that North Korea was willing to hold talks with the United States. The announcement occurred after a meeting between North Korean General Kim Yong-chol and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics.  
     
    According to President Moon's office,  North Korea was "very willing" to engage in dialogue  with the United States.   President Moon's office emphasized the fact that North Korea had  "agreed that inter-Korea talks and North-U.S. relations should improve together."
     
    The United States Department of State reacted by stressing that the goal of "any dialogue" must be nuclear disarmament.  The official statement by the State Department read as follows: "We will see if Pyongyang's message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps."
     
    It was unclear if North Korea would assent to these terms of engagement with the United States.  Of significance was the fact that the offer of dialogue came just after the Trump administration in the United States said it was imposing a slate of harsh sanctions against Pyongyang.   These new measures would target shipping vessels and shipping companies, which are believed to be used by North Korea to carry out prohibited trading activities.  
     
    It was to be seen if the sanctions plan would impact the proposal for diplomacy.  Indeed, Pyongyang had already reacted to the fresh sanctions angrily by characterizing the move by Washington D.C. as "an act of war".
     
    The North Korea foreign ministry appeared to give a symbolic nod to the South as it praised cooperation between the two Koreas during the Olympics.  But North Korea made clear that the United States presented an obstacle to improved inter-Korean relations saying that the United States "brought the threat of war to the Korean peninsula with large-scale new sanctions." 
     
    At the start of March 2018, following continued discussions between the two Koreas, a breakthrough of sorts appeared to have emerged.  North Korea indicated that it was willing to place denuclearization on the table in exchange for security guarantees.  At issue was a high level meeting between South Korean officials and North Korea's  leader, Kim Jong-un, in Pyongyang on March 5, 2018.  According to the South Koreans, the North was also willing to entertain talks with the United States as well as a pause on weapons testing. 
     
    While these overtures presented a marked shift in tone from the belligerent rhetoric and measures carried out by the North in recent times, it was unclear if these suggestions would translate into meaningful developments.  Previous agreements with the North that involved ceasing its  nuclear ambitions ended every time with Pyongyang failing to meet its international obligations.  
     
    That being said, it was clear that a diplomatic fulcrum was in place to facilitate negotiations at a forthcoming summit on the border between North Korea and South Korea in April 2018. In the aforementioned truce village of Panmunjom,  North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, was scheduled to meet with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in.
     
    Meanwhile, South Korea was making clear that even as it pursued diplomatic avenues with North Korea, it would nonetheless continue to strengthen its military defenses.  South Korean President Moon signaled a tone of cautious hope as he said in remarks to students at the Korean Military Academy: "We have started our journey for peace and prosperity with confidence that we can build denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula with our own strength.  But at the same time, we have to do our best to build countermeasure capability for North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles."
     
    Diplomatic Breakthrough? 
     
    U.S. President Trump accepts North Korea's offer to meet for face-to-face negotiations --
     
    In March 2018, following negotiations between the two Koreas, the president of the United States agreed to meet with the leader of North Korea.  The invitation from North Korea was delivered by a South Korean delegation, which noted that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: was eager to meet United States President Donald Trump "as soon as possible." For his part, Trump immediately accepted the invitation and would meet the North Korean leader by May 2018 "to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
     
    The development came in the aftermath of the February 2018  Winter Olympics in South Korea, which involved the North Koreans sending a delegation, which marched in the Opening Ceremony with South Korea. This move appeared to have opened the door to re-engagement between the two Koreas, paving the way for bilateral talks and a cooling of hostilities.
     
    As February 2018 came to a close, South Korea announced that North Korea was willing to hold talks with the United States. The announcement occurred after a meeting between North Korean General Kim Yong-chol and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, with an eye on improved relations across the board. 
     
    Then, at the start of March 2018, following continued discussions between the two Koreas, a breakthrough of sorts appeared to have emerged.  North Korea indicated that it was willing to place denuclearization on the table in exchange for security guarantees.  At issue was a high level meeting between South Korean officials and North Korea's  leader, Kim Jong-un, in Pyongyang on March 5, 2018.  According to the South Koreans, the North was also willing to entertain talks with the United States as well as a pause on weapons testing. 
     
    While these overtures presented a marked shift in tone from the belligerent rhetoric and measures carried out by the North in recent times, it was unclear if these suggestions would translate into meaningful developments.  Previous agreements with the North that involved ceasing its  nuclear ambitions ended every time with Pyongyang failing to meet its international obligations.  
     
    That being said, it was clear that a diplomatic fulcrum was in place to facilitate negotiations at a forthcoming summit on the border between North Korea and South Korea in April 2018. In the aforementioned truce village of Panmunjom,  North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, was scheduled to meet with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in.
     
    Meanwhile, South Korea was making clear that even as it pursued diplomatic avenues with North Korea, it would nonetheless continue to strengthen its military defenses.  South Korean President Moon signaled a tone of cautious hope as he said in remarks to students at the Korean Military Academy: "We have started our journey for peace and prosperity with confidence that we can build denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula with our own strength.  But at the same time, we have to do our best to build countermeasure capability for North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles."
     
    On March 8, 2018, however, the entire landscape shifted when it was announced that United States President Donald Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
    According to reports, Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser to South Korean  President Moon Jae-in, conveyed the invitation to President Trump, who wasted not time in accepting it.  
     
    In fact, a South Korean delegation was in Washington D.C. on March 8, 2018, to meet with United States officials on defense and security matters. During that meeting, the South Koreans delivered the diplomatic overture from the North.  After being notified of the invitation,  President Trump entered the White House Press Briefing to tell members of the press that an important announcement on North Korea was in the offing. 
     
    A few hours later came the news -- via the South Koreans.  Speaking from a driveway in front of the White House West Wing, South Korean envoy Chung said that the United States president had agreed to a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leader.  Moreover, that meeting was to take place only two months later in May 2018.  
     
    South Korean envoy Chung said of Kim Jong-un: “He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible." Trump, according to Chung, agreed to “meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”  Chung also noted that the North Korean leader understood that joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea would go on, as scheduled, in late March 2018.
     
    The White House confirmed President Trump’s plan to meet Kim Jong-un via Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. 
     
    Via his favorite social media outlet, Twitter, Trump hailed the impending meeting with the North Korean leader, tweeting that Kim Jong-un had “talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze.”  He added, “Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time." He also tweeted: “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
     
    It should be noted that no sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader before.  At the same time, every sitting American president has had the opportunity to meet with the North Korean leader for face to face negotiations, if so desired.  Former President Barack Obama, while he was a candidate, said that he was open to the notion.  However, once he became president, that route was never pursued as the realities of engagement with a tyrannical dictator were made vividly clear.  
     
    For his part, Trump was jumping at the chance to do what no predecessor had done, emphasizing that he was not interested in lengthy  negotiation with the North Koreans, which could result in grand concessions for the North Koreans but no end to their  nuclear program.   While that stated goal could only be regarded as admirable, the fact of the matter was that his immediate acceptance of the invitation from the North Koreans to meet for face-to-face talks was -- by its very nature -- an extraordinarily grand concession.
     
    The reality was that any high level talks between the leaders of arch-enemy states  without diplomatic relations would normally entail a long period of preparation.  Indeed, an apex moment would typically come at a future moment, down the road,  between diplomatic representatives, such as ambassadors, and behind closed doors.  
     
    Sorting out that process would take time and be enormously challenging, given that the Trump administration was yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, following its decision not to pursue the appointment of seasoned diplomat,  Victor Cha. As well, the United States Department of State’s chief North Korea negotiator, Joseph Yun, was resigning from foreign service.
     
    But Kim Jong-un's offer to Donald Trump, followed by Trump's immediate -- and very public -- acceptance quite clearly upended the normative framework.  
     
    For South Korea, the prospect of re-engagement and dialogue with North Korea, and involving its closest ally, the United States, was generating relief.  It was also a political win for South Korean President Moon, who had been elected partly on the basis of his campaign promise to end the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula via dialogue and diplomacy. 
     
    For its part, the Trump administration was lauding the impending meeting with North Korea,  touting it as a historic development, resulting from its maximum pressure policy that included sanctions and threats of military force.  
     
    The administration received praise from Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security, who noted that the development came as a result of Trump's hardline tactics. 
     
    Some observers, however, wondered if the diplomacy was ensuing because of Trump's hardline military threats or despite it. 
     
    Critics of the administration noted that while dialogue was preferable to possibly catastrophic military action, the United States president granting a face-to-face meeting to the tyrannical and homicidal dictator of North Korea essentially legitimized Kim Jong-un.  
     
    Some critics went further, accusing the Trump administration of granting concessions to North Korea before the process of negotiations had even begun. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, declared: “White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has said that the United States has not made any concessions, but let’s be clear: THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION." 
     
    Tom Nichols, a professor of national security at the Naval War College, struck a similar note, observing  that the meeting should have been a reward for progress on denuclearization, and should have only come after a long process of careful preparation. He said, "A summit should be a reward for months, even years, of careful work and actual progress. Meetings at lower levels should progress to more senior principals, and then to the heads of state." 
     
    Still others wondered if the meeting could be a trap of sorts, while there was some suggestion that the North Koreans would leverage diplomacy to its benefit while not actually denuclearizing -- a pattern that the world has seen before from North Korea. 
     
    The fact of the matter was that North Korea had expended expensive resources on its nuclear program and to carry out its missile tests, which were frequent over the course of the last year.  Coupled with harsh sanctions, North Korea was very likely being compelled to return to the negotiating table for economic reasons.  As noted by CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, via Twitter:  “Never before have we had the North Korean in a position where their economy was at such risk and where their leadership was under such pressure that they would begin conversations on the terms that Kim Jong Un has conceded to.” 
     
    But the typical North Korean pattern to date  has been one where it occasionally engages in the exercise of diplomacy and makes a theater of denuclearization for economic gain. The North Koreans normally follow this phase by  violating international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions in a renewed pursuit of a nuclear program.  It was to be seen if this new diplomatic effort would end any differently. 
     
    In a worst case scenario, a botched negotiations process could leave the East Asia -- and indeed, the world -- in peril.  President Trump's former choice for ambassador to South Korea issued the following warning: “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have 'run out of road' on North Korea.”
     
    Note that by March 9, 2018, presumably in the face of the aforementioned criticism, the Trump administration modified its stance somewhat, with Press Secretary Sanders saying that the president had agreed to meet on the basis of certain conditions, specifying  “on the basis that we see concrete and verifiable steps.”

    The path of diplomacy: Kim meets with Xi; Trump meets with Abe; CIA director meets secretly with North Korean leader --

    In late March 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un traveled to the Chinese capital of Beijing  to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Improved ties between Pyongyang and Beijing were clearly being sought after a period of strained relations between North Korea and its closest ally.  

    According to Chinese state media, the North Korean leader made clear that he wished to "resolve" the issue of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Later, Chinese authorities noted that North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un vowed to commit to denuclearization while China emphasized its enduring friendship with North Korea. That being said, North Korean media was silent on the issue of denuclearization.
     
    Historic bilateral meetings between the two Koreas were set for April 2018. Working level meetings intended to set the foundation for higher level talks would be held on April 4, 2018. Then, on April 27, 2018, President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un  would meet for face to face talks. These would be the first time the leaders of North Korea and South Korea would have direct engagement since the last Inter-Korean summit of 2007. The 2018 summit was to be held at Freedom House on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

    At the April 27, 2018, summit between the two Koreas, the main issues on the table would include regional security and denuclearization of the Korean peninsular. But the summit would also include an effort to finally and formally  end the 1950-53 Korean War a major factor.  

    A South Korea official said: "As one of the plans, we are looking at a possibility of shifting the Korean peninsula's armistice to a peace regime. But that's not a matter than can be resolved between the two Koreas alone. It requires close consultations with other concerned nations, as well as North Korea."

    To that latter end, United States President Donald Trump expressed support for the peace effort  between the North and the South  aimed at ending the state of war.

    Ahead of a highly-anticipated summit of the two Koreas in late April 2018, and an equally anticipated meeting between the North Korean and United States heads of state in May or June 2018, came other bilateral talks between key stakeholders.  

    Of significance was a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump. The general consensus was that  the Japanese leader sought to convey his concerns about the impending Trump-Kim meeting, and the impact on his country.  Japan's proximity to the Koreas placed it directly in the path of any possible confrontation, should the diplomatic process fail. Even successful negotiations between the United States and North Korea would not necessarily translate into a security guarantee for Japan.  

    To that end, the Japanese prime minister wanted to ensure that any denuclearization agreement between the United States and North Korea would not just focus on long-range missiles that could impact United States terrain, but also shorter range missiles that could affect Japan.

    In his remarks to Trump, Abe said, "For the North Korean issue, I’d like to underscore the importance of achieving the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, as well as the abandonment of missile programs of North Korea."

    Trump appeared to give those assurances of unity to Abe as he declared, "Japan and ourselves are locked, and we are very unified on the subject of North Korea."

    Soon after the meeting between Abe and Trump came the shock news that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, had secretly met with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.  

    Pompeo reportedly made a secret visit to North Korea in late March-early April 2018 and met with Kim Jong-un. The visit was intended to set the foundation for the forthcoming meeting between the North korean leader and President Trump.  

    Pompeo's trip to North Korea, which was arranged by South Korean intelligence chief, Suh Hoon, and the North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, was intended to test whether or not the United States and North Korea were serious about their intentions to pursue dialogue.  The presence of Pompeo as the United States' representative marked the highest level official known to have ever met with the North Korean leader. (Note: In 2014, CIA Director James Clapper traveled to North Korea to secure the release of two detained Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller.)  

    During Senate confirmation hearings for the post of secretary of state later in April 2018, Pompeo expressed optimism about a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat.  Nevertheless, he emphasized that a meeting between Trump and Kim would not necessarily lead to a comprehensive deal.  Instead, Pompeo said that the goal of the United States-North Korea summit would be “an agreement ... such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons.” 

    Meanwhile, President Trump weighed in with his own message of cautious optimism.  He told reporters, "I really believe there’s a lot of goodwill; a lot of good things are happening. As I always say, we’ll see what happens, because ultimately it’s the end result that matters, not the fact that we’re thinking about having a meeting or having a meeting."

    Trump hailed the effort of Pompeo in Pyongyang, saying that the CIA Director had formed a "good relationship" with Kim Jong Un.  Via the social media outlet, Twitter, Trump said: 
    "Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!"

    One issue yet to be decided ahead of the Trump-Kim meeting was the venue.  Among the places being discussed were the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, Switzerland, Sweden, and Mongolia. 

    Alert: North Korea shocks world by announcing it will suspend its nuclear program 

    On April 20, 2018,  North Korea stunned the world as it announced that it had completed its work developing nuclear weapons and was, thus, shutting down its nuclear test site in the northern part of the country, and suspending its nuclear program. North Korea further said that it was turning its attention to economic growth.  

    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un addressed the matter himself, emphasizing in a statement that there was no need to carry out  further nuclear or missile tests since North Korea had completed the process of weaponizing its nuclear arsenal.  

    The statement, which was carried on state media, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), was as follows: "From 21 April, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles."  The statement continued by noting that further tests were not necessary as North Korea's nuclear capabilities had been "verified."  The  declaration also addressed the closure of the northern nuclear test site as follows: "The northern nuclear test site has completed its mission."

    The new focus for North Korea, according to Kim Jong-un, would be economic development. 

    In a country where the nuclear program was a foundation of national identity, Kim's statement could only be regarded as both remarkable and unprecedented. 

    It was too soon to tell if North Korea would keep this promise (previous commitments have been systematically violated), or,  if this was a public statement was intended to set the table for impending talks with South Korea and the United States.  Nevertheless, the declaration had to be understood as potentially positive for global stability. 

    A spokesperson from South Korean President Moon Jae-in lauded the move by North Korea, casting it as "meaningful progress."  The South Korea president's office added, "It will also contribute to creating a very positive environment for the success of the upcoming South-North summit and North-United States summit."

    President Trump hailed the development via the social media outlet, Twitter. He tweeted: 
    "This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit."

    Editor's Note: 

    It must be emphasized that this breakthrough with North Korea was facilitated by  three key dynamics.  

    First, pressure from China has likely had a real economic effect on North Korea in the last year, likely making further nuclear testing unaffordable, and compelling Pyongyang to the negotiating table. China has provided North Korea with much of its food and energy supplies. At the same time, China's pressure on North Korea has been restrained for the most part, despite Pyongyang's provocative nuclear activities. China's calculation has been that it has more to lose from regime collapse, with refugees flooing the borders.  

    Nevertheless, China stepped up its pressure in 2017 with real results. Bilateral trade  between China and North Korea had actually increased between 2000 and 2015. But in the first three quarters of 2017, Chinese imports from North Korea actually fell by 16.7 percent. Of particular significance in 2017 was China’s commerce ministry's temporary suspension of coal imports from North Korea. As well, China National Petroleum Corporation suspended fuel sales to North Korea that same year, while several Chinese banks restricted the financial activities of North Korean entities. These moves were - a more than likely felt acutely within North Korea.

    Second, United States President Donald Trump was giving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un what no other United States president had offered Kim, his father, or grandfather -- the opportunity to sit at the negotiating table in direct face-to-face talks as counterparts. While other former presidents, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have met with North Korean leaders, they did not do so as sitting presidents, but as former presidents operating in emissary capacities. For Kim, the kind of prestige and political capital internationally likely vitiated the loss of prestige and political capital domestically, as he shuts down the nuclear program.

    Third, this diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea was spurred by the election of a pro-diplomacy South Korean government in 2017.  

    Leading up to the election, South Korea had been embroiled in a major scandal involving then-President Park Geun-hye of the ruling Liberty Korea Party, which has had a hardline policy towards North Korea.  The Park scandal led to sustained mass protests and, eventually, the president's impeachment. The ruling party's candidate was thus not viewed as viable in the election.  

    Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party, headed by Moon Jae-in, was campaigning on rapprochement between Seoul & Pyongyang. Leading up to election day, Moon was calling for better relations with North Korea through dialogue, and promising to reverse the deployment of a United States Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system to South Korea, which had been put into place to stave off the North Korean nuclear threat.  The presence of THAAD antagonized China, while the demand by United States President Donald  Trump that the South Korean government pay $1 billion for system served only to outrage the citizenry. As such, the political beneficiary was Moon, who articulated the most distance from the United States "maximum pressure" policy on North Korea.  

    Once elected to power, Moon and the Democratic Party continued to push for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula. This shift in stance from Seoul after decades of hardline positioning yielded real results, with Pyongyang willing to be a negotiating partner.


    -- April 22, 2018
     

    Written by:

    Denise Youngblood Coleman,  PhD.

    President and Editor in Chief

    CountryWatch Inc.

     

     

     

     

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