BUSAN: The president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, recently called for another summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump has indicated his interest, but the North Koreans definitively rejected it. The US has sent a special representative to South Korea to discuss re-starting negotiations with North Korea, but the prospect appears unlikely.
On Saturday (Jul 3), North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui revealed that Pyongyang does not feel the need for a new summit, days after Moon suggested the two leaders meet again before the US elections in November.
On Tuesday (Jul 7), Kwon Jong Gun, director general for US affairs at Pyongyang's foreign ministry reiterated this stand while also hitting out at South Korea for meddling in its bilateral affairs with the US. “It is just the time for it to stop meddling in others' affairs but it seems there is no cure or prescription for its bad habit," Kwon said in a statement. “Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face to face with the United States.”
This is a disappointing conclusion to several years of negotiation between the US and North Korea.
Back in 2018, hopes were high that the two sides might find a breakthrough. Trump was the first US president willing to meet a North Korean leader. A leader-level summit was long a North Korean demand. The hope was that giving in to that might spark more serious North Korean concessions than previously. That has not been the case unfortunately and undermines the rationale for yet another summit.
THREAT PERCEPTION CHANGED
The central point of contention between North Korea and US is, of course, the former’s possession of nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering those weapons to North America. North Korea achieved this capability in late 2017. It had been working on it for decades.
Long-range nuclear missiles fundamentally change America’s threat perception of North Korea.
Previously North Korea was a troublesome, but distant, rogue state. Pyongyang has long engaged in bad behaviour – terrorism, provocations against America’s ally South Korea, cyber-hacking, overseas assassinations, and so on – but these were always rather far from the US homeland.
Similarly, North Korea’s conventional military threat – its very large army and copious short-range missiles – was a threat to America’s regional partners – Japan and South Korea – not the US directly.
This distance gave the US leverage to pursue tougher strategies against North Korea. Former president George W Bush, for example, famously placed North Korea on the “axis of evil.”
But now North Korea has achieved direct nuclear deterrence with the US.'
If the US were to launch a regime change operation against North Korea, Pyongyang could attack the US itself with devastating force.
Trump’s first response to this was to threaten war. He notoriously threatened “fire and fury” in 2017. But this always felt hollow. Trump risked a North Korean retaliatory nuclear strike on the US mainland if he acted. In the end he did not, and he pivoted to negotiations the following year.
BACK TO THE NEGOTIATING TABLE
It is these negotiations Moon is trying to restart. But their previous course suggests little would come from another.
Kim and Trump met three times from 2018 to 2019 with little concretely achieved. Trump was heavily criticised for his “photo-op diplomacy” - the pursuit of striking imagery, such as walking around inside North Korea for a few moments, at the expense of a serious deal with Kim.
Kim too seemed mostly interested in the optics – meeting a US president as a peer leader suggested to the world that North Korea is normal, accepted state in the global system. That was a nice public relations coup for him and his country.
But for all the media hype, very little on the ground here has changed. North Korea still has its nukes and missiles and has surrendered nothing. It is still under sanction.
The US and United Nations have not rolled back those punishing measures. And the conventional military stand-off along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) in Korea is still intact. The two Koreas still point an extraordinary amount of force at each other across a very narrow area.
Hence, for another summit to be meaningful – not an election year gimmick for Trump or a legitimising international theatre for Kim – the following conditions would need to be met.
The core strategic reason for the previous summits’ failure was the refusal of both sides to offer counter-concessions commensurate to the concessions they were demanding.
In the run-up to the first summit in 2018 in Singapore, the US made the wildly unrealistic demand that North Korea “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly denuclearise” (CVID).
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that same year, several participants and I queried US and South Korean officials, suggesting the North Korea would never accept a demand equivalent to unilateral disarmament, especially as the US was offering only vague commitments to sanctions relief and development aid.
Unsurprisingly, the North rejected CVID out of hand, and the Singapore summit statement was toothless.
In 2019, at the second summit in Hanoi, North Korea made a similarly one-sided demand. It promised to shut down one ageing nuclear reactor in exchange for a total lifting of sanctions.
This position was so absurd that Trump walked out of the summit, crashing the whole event. The result of all this poor planning and posturing was yet another empty, third summit at the DMZ later that year.
For a fourth summit to be meaningful then, both sides need to bring a far fuller list of what they are willing to trade away and what they most want to receive from the other side. This would allow real bargaining.
A second failure of the previous summits was their “big bang” approach to a deal.
A core belief behind the desire for a leader-level US-North Korea summit is that the two leaders could break through decades of ossified hostility and bureaucratic inertia.
Small swaps set-up by bureaucrats deep in government ministries would not generate the momentum to reset the relationship.
The two paramount leaders needed to meet personally to forge a breakthrough deal akin to the Camp David Accords of 1978, in which the leaders of Israel, Egypt, and the US met personally to dramatically reframe the Israeli-Egyptian relationship.
This personal approach was never tried before in the US-North Korea-South Korea triangle, so it was worth a try these last few years. But it is also true that is has failed spectacularly.
The causes are manifold – Trump came to the summits grossly unprepared, Kim came looking mostly for the international legitimacy of personally meeting the US president and Moon got quickly sidelined by Trump and Kim hungry for positive press.
But the larger reason is almost certainly the basic lack of strategic trust between the US and North Korea. These two states have been at odds since 1950. Neither trusts the other, and both struggle to make credible commitments.
North Korea has rescinded on its deal promises for decades, while former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was unseated even after the US told him he would not if he gave up his nuclear programme.
So even if a huge reset deal could have been struck, it is unlikely that either would believe the other would stick to it. It was quite unlikely that either would gamble away major concessions at one stroke, and neither did.
A future summit would need instead to prioritise small, workable deals, with the promise that they would cumulate and expand over time. There is no big-bang reset to be had, and two years have been wasted on this chimaera.
In the end, a fourth summit may indeed happen. Trump loves press coverage, and a high-profile diplomatic event would cast him in a presidential light, a boon for his struggling re-election effort.
But just like the previous summits, it is reasonable to predict nothing would come of a fourth summit, and this is likely the reason Kim has rejected it.
This a shame. Trump has squandered 2018’s promising breakthrough.
Robert Kelly is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.