While the agreement that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un reached in Singapore de-escalated the situation between the two countries in the immediate term, it is fragile and might generate adverse consequences, if multilateral negotiations with regional actors, and a realistic action plan will not follow soon. The different expectations of both sides and fissures within the US administration that are already taking shape, and the lack of strategy on how to proceed are the largest potentially destabilising factors that can spoil the process. The biggest risk is that, if the talks fail, we may see yet another escalation of the crisis, making any future engagement of North Korea in denuclearisation negotiations even more difficult.
Reports on immigrant families being separated at the US-Mexico border and the subsequent nationwide uproar against Trump’s immigration policy dominated the media coverage over the past week, effectively pushing developments between the US and North Korea that followed the Singapore summit to the background. Yet, last week saw some significant developments, which indicate that dark clouds are already gathering on the nuclear horizon.
Recent statements of US officials and stakeholders in Northeast Asia, as well as reports that Pyongyang has advanced its nuclear infrastructure in recent months, call for cautious optimism at best, regarding further developments between the US and North Korea.
It may seem that the vision of long-lasting peace – the door to which was allegedly opened by the Singapore summit – is starting to crumble only now. In reality though, it is questionable whether there was ever any reason to believe that the summit could change the situation in the long-term. In order to understand why the prospects for a breakthrough in the North Korea nuclear debate were fragile from the beginning, a careful reading of the joint declaration of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is key, as is the knowledge of diverging security interests of the United States and North Korea, regional power constellations, and geopolitical dynamics.
The major problems that may generate adverse consequences, and that are ultimately the reason for current fissures between the US and North Korea, are twofold: First, the different interpretations by North Korea and the United States of what has been agreed to in the joint statement and diverging expectations and security interests with regard to how to proceed. Second, fissures in the United States’ approach, the lack of a forward-thinking strategy and Donald Trump’s unpredictability make for potentially detrimental consequences.
Clashing expectations and security interests
Statements from both the US and North Korean leaders that followed the summit, suggest that both sides have different interpretations of what was agreed upon during the summit in Singapore, and envision different steps to follow.
The most important passage of the joint statement, which is most sensitive and likely to generate tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, is the one which commits the DPRK to work towards “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. While this might sound like a unilateral commitment on the part of North Korea, a denuclearisation of the whole peninsula is by no means something Pyongyang can achieve alone. In fact, it refers to the denuclearisation of both North Korea and South Korea, the latter of which is protected by the nuclear umbrella of the United States, its key security guarantor. Therefore, a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would ultimately also mean dismantling the US nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia.
While the US removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1992, it still uses nuclear-powered ships and submarines for the military exercises it conducts with South Korea and Japan. The suspension of the US-South Korea joint military exercises that were scheduled for this year, as was recently announced by Donald Trump, is however only a part of the bigger picture. In the long term, Pyongyang will insist on the permanent removal of US military assets from South Korean land and the coastal waters of the peninsula, thus dismantling the US regional umbrella and ending the US-South Korea-Japan alliance and US military presence in the region, something Pyongyang considers a threat to its stability and security.
For the United States on the other hand, denuclearization refers only to North Korea. Despite the announced cancellation of US joint military exercises with its allies, which were planned for this year, it is questionable whether Washington will make any further concessions to Pyongyang. Several statements Trump has made indicate that the US favours applying the so-called ‘Libya model’ in regard to North Korea’s denuclearisation process: a comprehensive and full denuclearisation without any concessions, prior to the regime fully abandoning its nuclear arsenal. For Pyongyang however, the ‘Libya model’ is not an option. Rather, Libya serves as a warning sign to Kim Jong-Un to not to give up its nuclear weapons by destroying or giving them away, in order not to end like Gaddafi.
In view of the importance Pyongyang attaches to nuclear weapons, it is difficult to imagine that it will abandon them easily. Nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of Pyongyang’s policy. The rapid advancement of its nuclear programme over the past few years was deliberate and the result of strategically calculated decisions. Possessing nuclear weapons is for Kim an assurance of survival, which has been guiding North Korea’s foreign policy since the partition of the peninsula following the World War II.
Against this background, the question arises whether Kim Jong-Un actually has any intention to denuclearise and if so, what motivated him to engage into talks with Trump in the first place. One possible scenario is that Pyongyang wants to buy time while covertly continuing its nuclear weapons program and making its status as a nuclear power an accomplished fact.
One possible scenario is that North Korea – without intending to fully abandon its nuclear weapons program – might push for a phased approach, meaning that each step it takes towards denuclearisation would be accompanied by concessions on the part of the US and that the international sanctions, most notably those from the UN, will end. Improving North Korea’s economic situation, which has suffered from the sanctions especially in the past few years, is something Kim Jong-Un will desperately need for the survival of his regime in the long term. There are a number of examples from the past when Pyongyang used negotiations of its eventual denuclearisation to receive aid and other concessions, while in reality continuing the development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
An easing pressure on Pyongyang through loosening or lifting international sanctions is also something China would want to see as an outcome of the US-North Korea deal, and therefore will put pressure on Pyongyang to demand this concession. Shortly after the Trump-Kim summit, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, suggested that the UN Security Council (UNSC) should consider loosening or lifting sanctions against North Korea if the country complies with UN resolutions and makes progress in diplomatic negotiations.
Although early this year China backed economic sanctions imposed by the UNSC against North Korea, China is not interested in inducing economic damage on the norther part of the Korean Peninsula in the long-term. A dramatically deteriorating economic situation in the northern part of the Korean peninsula that could risk the collapse of the Kim regime, would affect the stability in the region considerably, and spark a massive influx of migrants from North Korea to China. China’s decision to back the sanctions was only a way to pressure Pyongyang to immediately stop its nuclear and missile tests in order to prevent an escalation of the situation.
Washington’s policy: Friction instead of a strategy
There are also clear indicators that there is not a unified position in Washington with regard to specific results to be achieved by the Pyongyang regime, eventual concessions to be made by the US, and whether North Korea should be offered a deadline to denuclearise or not.
The lack of a strategy of the US on to how to proceed with negotiations is reflected in the contradictory and uncoordinated declarations of US officials, which suggest that a strategic approach is missing. Earlier this month, officials were indicating that they expect North Korea to denuclearise by the end of Trump’s first term in 2020. This position was confirmed by Secretary of Defence, James Mattis a week ago when he announced that North Korea will be presented with tasks and a specific timeline for implementing the agreement. However, only one day later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that there will be no deadline for nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
The disagreement over whether Pyongyang should be given a specific timeline or not is one thing. A much more important question on which opinions within the US administration differ is whether the US should offer the regime any concessions in parallel to the North Korean regime’s denuclearisation efforts. While the ‘Libyan model’ is an approach that is favoured by Washington, Trump’s announcement to cancel upcoming military exercises with its East Asian allies is not fully consistent with that approach.
However, as talks proceed, Trump will most likely face growing pressure from the Pentagon to maintain a strong position against Pyongyang and not to make any one-sided concessions. This argument is supported by the fact that just last Saturday, a day before US and North Korean officials met to discuss next steps, a report appeared in the US news that cited several unidentified US officials, who – referring to the latest US intelligence assessment – argued that over the past months, North Korea has increased its production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons at multiple – so far undeclared – sites.
Facing pressure from his fellow Republicans, Trump’s rhetoric is already changing from sweet talk to a harsher tone. Only two weeks ago, right after the summit, Trump ensured that the Pyongyang regime no longer poses a nuclear threat. But last week Trump declared that North Korea still poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to US national security, its foreign policy, and economy.
It is difficult to predict how the Trump administration will move along, given that its stance towards North Korea and how to progress is changing almost on a daily basis. The risk is that, as soon as Trump sees himself confronted with reality and the complexity of negotiations, and when he realises that Kim Jong-Un might not accept the US President’s conditions, or demands concessions from the US, Trump may well go back to his ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric and terminate all talks via Twitter.
It is also important to remember that Trump’s shifting stance on whether North Korea still poses a threat or not, does not change the fact that in official US security documents and defence policy, North Korea remains a threat to US national security. Trends set out by the US Nuclear Posture Review from 2018, which places increased emphasis on its nuclear forces – as compared to the document from previous years – are unlikely to change in the near future regardless.
Preventing yet another crisis
The diverging expectations of both sides regarding mutual concessions and next steps, as well as Washington’s inconsistent position and Trump’s unpredictability, make for disruptions that could generate adverse consequences, rather than achieving peaceful relations between the two countries. If not addressed at an early stage of negotiations, these factors might seriously impede further talks, or even risk an escalation of the situation, so that we find ourselves at best where we were last year.
Both North Korea and the United States proceed with their activities on the nuclear front in line with their respective security and defence policies. North Korea’s nuclear sites will remain active until Kim Jong-Un orders a halt. Therefore, it is not surprising that improvements to the infrastructure at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant are continuing at a fast pace, as reported by monitoring experts at 38 North, and according to satellite imagery collected on 21 June 2018. Additionally, North Korea’s advancement of enriching uranium in undeclared nuclear sites continues. The US on its part will continue building its missile defence programme to protect itself against the North Korean nuclear threat until anything concrete has been decided, which makes negotiations an even more urgent task.
In order to prevent the recent agreement descending into chaos, multilateral negotiations must take place instead of unilateral decisions by Washington and Pyongyang. The involvement of regional stakeholders in talks between the US and North Korea – most notably China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan – would not only allow for mitigating adverse consequences and increasing predictability, but also for coordinating all actors’ positions. All these actors have a strategic interest in the North Korean issue and are already are trying to shape the process behind the scenes.
China and Russia have been actively engaged in deescalating the situation between Trump and Kim since last year, when at the height of tensions, they initiated a ‘dual suspension’ plan that proposed freezing nuclear missile tests by North Korea in exchange for the cancellation of US-South Korean annual joint military exercises. The fact that Trump and Kim met and took de-escalatory steps, which is ultimately what China and Russia proposed, highlights the interest and role of the regional powers. Especially China, which is a growing power and North Korea’s strategic ally, needs a seat at the table. The meetings that took place between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un, before the latter went to Singapore to meet with Donald Trump, underscore Beijing’s influence on its strategic ally in Pyongyang and the fact that it wants to play a central role in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programme. The opportunity for restarting the six-party-talks is there. It only needs to be grasped quickly.
 In a report from 30 June 2018, NBC News cited several unidentified U.S. officials, who – referring to the latest US intelligence assessment – argued that over the past months, North Korea has increased its production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons at multiple – so far undeclared – sites.
 In 2003, after nine months of secret talks with the US and the UK, then leader of Libya Muammar Gaddafi agreed to abandon his country’s entire nuclear arsenal. The components of the nuclear program were shipped to the US or destroyed. In 2011, despite having given up his nuclear arsenal, Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by US-backed rebels.
 The decision was announced by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on January 5, 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-china/china-says-will-limit-oil-refined-product-exports-to-north-korea-idUSKBN1EU135
 The US Nuclear Posture Review determines the role of nuclear weapons in the US security strategy.
 A programme of the Stimson Center.
 On 26 June, 2018, US officials announced that the US military is preparing to install missile defence radar in Hawaii that could identify any ballistic missiles that are fired from North Korea.
 Launched in 2003, the six-party talks were a series of multilateral negotiations with the purpose of finding a solution to security concerns and the North Korean nuclear program, attended by North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. These negotiations were initiated after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. North Korea withdrew from the six-party-talks in 2009.