After much disappointment following the Hanoi summit, a few things have become clearer. Each side has made its next move, with Pyongyang, most notably, openly advertising resumption of weapons development. So, what did we learn?
The first thing we learned is that the Trump administration was never serious about negotiating with Kim Jong-un. It is clear now the strategy from the start was to pressure Kim and see how much he would give up for free. At no point did the US mention potential concessions or even possible benchmarks for a staged process of incentivized denuclearization. American officials never used the words “timetable” or “compromise,” sticking to a rigid rhetoric of “asks,” no doubt disappointing regional allies.
Skeptics of diplomacy correctly note that lifting sanctions would have been risky because re-enacting them post-removal would be difficult. These same people, however, fail to mention there are alternatives. The US could, for example, unilaterally issue a temporary waiver on certain trade restrictions or offer humanitarian aid. Neither of these was mentioned. Although I agree a verifiable and complete denuclearization is difficult, I am sure South Koreans would have preferred maintaining long-term progress, even if that meant only partial denuclearization.
Trump’s hard-line stance is not entirely incomprehensible. The US is not (yet) threatened directly by North Korean weapons. They know any direct military confrontation will result in the utter destruction of North Korea. No doubt, Pyongyang knows this too. Although South Korea and Japan may have urgent, vested interests in a denuclearized North, a nuclear threat presents certain strategic advantages for the US, allowing them to maintain a strong military presence close to Chinese borders. Perhaps this is a core element of the American calculation.
Some will argue Trump’s position reaffirms an important affront to human rights violations in North Korea. I will be the first to admit the North Korean regime is both oppressive and barbaric. However, I will also be the first to note the Trump administration’s stance on human rights has been ambivalent at best. He supported Saudi Arabia despite damning evidence about Jamal Khashoggi and even gave Pyongyang a pass on the death of Otto Warmbier. This lack of consistency is a recurring theme in Trumpian politics, reflecting poorly on the world’s most powerful country.
Had Trump’s objective from the start been to hold Kim accountable for human rights, the two should have never met. Appearing together in Singapore only legitimized Kim’s standing as a world leader. Every American president before Trump was aware of this significance, choosing not to engage North Korea so directly: at most, sending an ex-president as envoy.
On Kim’s side, the harsh reality is North Korea has no leverage against Trump’s hard line. Giving up all nuclear capacity without concessions is out of the question. Kim has essentially bankrupted his country to obtain these weapons, no doubt reassuring his people internally that their realization would bend the US to the bargaining table, with the ultimate goal of lifting sanctions. Although the table came, the bargaining has not. The fact that Washington is asking for the impossible reaffirms they are not really interested in negotiating, inadvertently establishing a new nuclear normal on the Korean Peninsula.
To Moon’s credit, military provocation against South Korea is no longer an option for Kim. Any such move would eviscerate the time and energy expended in establishing detente. Reneging on that commitment carries a high political liability, likely too high even for Kim.
The one thing that troubles me is that old saying: “a cornered beast is most dangerous.” I am sure this is wisdom familiar to Koreans and Americans alike. Backed into a corner, will Kim’s frustration boil over into new forms of hostility? Perhaps a missile fired at Guam? American tourists taken hostage? Given the great lengths Kim has gone in recent months to repair his country’s image, violence would seem unlikely, but history has shown repeatedly that desperation often yields the worst in men.
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in Busan and associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.