The article argues that Washington’s suspension of large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea, planned for March, will not reverse North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Instead, it might send a wrong message to the Pyongyang regime about a potential permanent dismantlement of US presence on the peninsula, which the US is unlikely to give up anytime soon. Diverging expectations about mutual concessions risk torpedoing future negotiations on the nuclear issue, further endangering stability in the region.
On 3 March, the Combined Forces Command comprising US and South Korean forces announced a suspension of its annual joint large-scale military exercises, planned for March, replacing them with smaller exercises. The decision comes after the second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un – which took place on 27-28 February in Hanoi – failed to result in an agreement.
For Kim, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula ultimately also means dismantling the US nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia.
Washington’s decision to downscale the exercises is an attempt to ease tensions and keep Pyongyang’s discontent over the United States’ unwillingness to lift sanctions at last week’s summit under control, with hopes that it leaves the door open to future negotiations on North Korea’s complete denuclearisation, as is Washington’s ultimate goal. However, Trump’s attempt to improve ties with Kim through symbolic gestures might not change the regime’s course. Instead, rather than building trust and confidence, such moves bear the risk of being manipulated by the other side. Pyongyang might feel encouraged to demand further-reaching concessions from the US, namely the complete withdrawal of US forces from the region.
The suspension of the US and its allies’ large-scale military exercises meets a long-held demand of Pyongyang. The regime has long considered them a practice to invade North Korea, calling them ‘simulations of war’. 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, is therefore Pyongyang’s ultimate strategic goal.
As North Korea’s chief strategic ally, China is a main – albeit invisible – player in the North Korean nuclear game.
We should not expect Pyongyang to see Washington’s decision to downscale the joint military exercises as an act of benevolence to be repaid in kind. For Kim, it is rather what Washington committed itself to at the Singapore summit. The commitment to “completely denuclearise the Korean Peninsula”, as stated in the joint declaration in Singapore, is not something Pyongyang can achieve alone. For Kim, it refers to the denuclearisation of both North Korea and South Korea, the latter being protected by the nuclear umbrella of the United States, its key security guarantor. A denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula would therefore ultimately also mean dismantling the US nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia.
Pyongyang’s demands are tied to China’s strategic interests in the region.
Kim’s pressure on the US to dismantle its military presence has only grown since the first summit. In his New Year’s speech this year, Kim Jong Un called for an end to the US-South Korean military drills, as well as an end to the deployment of US military assets such as nuclear-powered submarines, aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers, and stealth warplanes.
Pyongyang’s demands are also tied to China’s strategic interests in the region. Kim’s frequent visits to Beijing prior to both the Singapore and Hanoi summits, to consult Xi Jinping on his possible moves towards the US, shows China’s crucial role in the nuclear issue and the leverage it maintains over Pyongyang. A diminishing US military presence is indeed something China is eager to see. China considers US military activities in the region, including the missile defence system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), as not necessarily a deterrent against North Korea, as Washington claims, but as ultimately directed against China – the radius of the shield goes well beyond the Korean Peninsula, reaching China. As negotiations proceed, it is fair to expect Beijing to demand Pyongyang puts more pressure on the US on that issue.
US calculations miss one crucial point: Nuclear weapons are the conrnerstone of Pyongyang’s policy.
Nuclear weapons are here to stay
If the calculation behind the US decision to scale back its military drills is that it might induce the Pyongyang regime to make far-reaching concessions towards ultimately leaving the nuclear path, it misses one crucial point: Nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of Pyongyang’s policy. Possessing nuclear weapons is, for Kim, an assurance of survival. This has been guiding North Korea’s foreign policy since the partition of the peninsula following World War Two. It is difficult to imagine North Korea ever abandoning nuclear weapons.
In this sense and in view of the strategic importance the regime attaches to nuclear weapons, it is difficult to imagine that Kim will give them up easily, even in exchange for a complete removal of economic sanctions. The regime is indeed seeking to boost the development of its economy to secure the population’s support, and hence to guarantee stability within the country and the regime’s ultimate survival. Yet Kim’s publicly expressed emphasis on the importance of economic growth and its prioritisation over nuclear weapons should be treated with caution. The regime will continue implementing both parts of its byungjin policy, which presumes the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the economy.
Pyongyang will continue manoeuvring and applying tactics aimed at pressuring the US to make concessions.
Due to the lack of accurate and reliable data on the actual economic situation in North Korea, it is difficult to tell whether Kim’s warning of a looming economic crisis in his country is perhaps not a means to put pressure on the international community to lift the sanctions regime. It is important to remember that China is Pyongyang’s largest trading partner, accounting for 90% of North Korea’s international trade.
A glance at history, including developments since the summit in Singapore last June, shows that the most likely scenario is that the Pyongyang regime will continue manoeuvring and applying tactics aimed at pressuring the US to make concessions, from lifting economic sanctions to dismantling its military presence. For its part, Pyongyang will take on meaningless measures as a way to gain time and demonstrate its apparent commitment to denuclearise. Meanwhile, it will continue to advance its nuclear programme, keeping nuclear facilities of strategic importance in operation, and engaging in negotiations, moving further away from its status as an isolated ‘rogue state’ towards a status as a de facto nuclear state.
It is time to depersonalise and multilaterise the negotiations between the US and North Korea.
It’s time for a strategic move in the nuclear game
The suspension of the US-South Korean large-scale military drills in exchange for North Korea not conducting nuclear missile tests (‘dual suspension’), is ultimately what China and Russia proposed in 2017 when the situation between the US and North Korea risked escalating into “fire and fury”. While this might ease tensions immediately, it is not enough to solve the issue in the long term. Therefore, instead of sending symbolic gestures that might only generate false expectations on the side of Pyongyang and encourage it to demand further-reaching concessions which the US is not willing to make, it is time to depersonalise and multilaterise the negotiations between the US and North Korea.
The recent summit in Hanoi laid bare what the previous one in Singapore already indicated: Trump’s unilateral efforts to deal with Pyongyang will not allow for real progress on the nuclear issue. Managing the problem in the long-term will require a) a comprehensive roadmap which clearly sets out the intentions, expectations, and possible concessions on both sides, and takes into account the realities of regional security; and b) the involvement of other actors – most notably China – in negotiations. As North Korea’s chief strategic ally, China is a main – albeit invisible – player in the North Korean nuclear game, due to its importance in the region and its leverage over Pyongyang. To make progress on the nuclear issue, the United States needs the support and cooperation of China. This, however, will require settling the US-China trade war, which has further complicated the nuclear front.
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