By Jonathan Davis
An unofficial/official end-of-the-year deadline to restart denuclearization talks with North Korea is upon us and it appears as though Pyongyang isn’t much interested in doing anything about it, absent major concessions on sanctions from the United States.
The Washington Times reported Saturday:
The stage is set for a return to U.S.-North Korea brinkmanship, with Pyongyang ignoring repeated offers from the Trump administration to restart stalled nuclear talks, while China and Russia are pressing to lift international sanctions on the isolated nation despite its refusal to drop its nuclear programs.
The top U.S. envoy for North Korea on Tuesday ended a three-day visit to Seoul this week without a hoped-for meeting with North Korean officials, as Pyongyang stuck to its threat to launch fresh provocations unless the U.S. offers major concessions by the end of the year.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun made clear during his visit to Seoul that Washington won’t accept the arbitrary deadline. He also suggested the Trump administration would be disappointed but not surprised if the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un engages in weapons tests or some other aggressive action in the coming weeks.
“Let me be absolutely clear: The United States does not have a deadline,” Biegun told reporters in the South Korean on Monday. “We are fully aware of the strong potential for North Korea to conduct a major provocation in the days ahead. To say the least, such an action will be most unhelpful in achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Well — so much for that, right? President Trump gave it his best shot and just came up short, huh?
Maybe. And maybe not.
First and foremost, Russia and China definitely have skin in the game here because North Korea borders both of their countries. And while deep down it’s likely that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping really don’t desire a nuclear-armed North Korea, the love that Pyongyang may soon become a thorn in Washington’s side again.
Gaining peace with North Korea was never going to be in either country’s interest; a unified democratic Korean Peninsula helps the U.S. by putting an ally on Russian and Chinese borders (because the peninsula will never become unified under Stalinist Kim Jong-un).
But I wager that Trump is tenacious enough to continue pursing a deal because a) he knows it’s in the best interests of everyone, including Russia and China; and b) he just isn’t ready to accept defeat yet.
Trump has said in the past that he’s in ‘no hurry’ to make a deal, so it isn’t likely that he’ll make a deal in name only just to have something to run on next year. No, there is a lot at stake here so he’ll want any denuclearization deal to be substantial, lasting, and mutually beneficial for the U.S., South Korea and North Korea (like more Western investment).
But the wildcard is and remains whether Kim is or has ever been serious about giving up his nuclear capabilities. A number of defectors have said that Kim believes a nuclear weapons capability ensures that he remains in power and that’s what he desires more than anything.
A compromise deal would be to allow him to remain in power and keep the peninsula divided but without nuclear weapons. Yet, how does the West verify? Would Kim continue to develop them secretly as the North did following the 1994 Agreed Framework signed with the Clinton administration?
I estimate that yes, Kim probably would continue development.
Which brings us back to the status quo: New bellicosity in rhetoric, more missile testing, and maybe even a nuclear test…along with renewed tensions.