As with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the developing interplay between actors on the Korean peninsula can be described as an endless cycle of uncertainty. Where its dual pair of protagonists engage in a cyclical series of events endlessly awaiting the arrival of Godot, the continued vacillating diplomatic exchange between the US and North Korea similarly risks compromising long-term peace on the Korea peninsula.
On 12 June 2018, both Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump met for a historic summit in Singapore. The meeting was considered a watershed diplomatic moment, marking the first meeting between a sitting US President and North Korean leader since the end of the 1953 Korean war, and drawing strong allusions to Nixon’s diplomatic visit to China in 1972. The outcome of this meeting was the creation of the Singapore Summit Joint Statement, a document which sought to restart US-North Korean relations from the beginning, affirmed the April 2018 inter-Korean Summit, and expressed the joint commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
Despite the diplomatic successes achieved though the Singapore Summit of 12 June 2018, the sustained difference of opinion on denuclearization was evident during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang on 7 July 2018. North Korea’s criticism of what it termed as US “gangster-like mindset” following the visit demonstrated how miscommunication and hostility will continue to characterize relations between the two longstanding opponents for years to come.
However, insights may be drawn into North Korea’s actions in the history of events preceding the Singapore Summit, which provides perspectives upon how the US and the international community should best respond to the looming North Korean’s relapse into its orthodox cycle of extortion and coercion through diplomatic maneuvers which consider South Korean interests, regional powers, and North Korea’s domestic political circumstances.
The basis of North Korea’s surprising change in diplomacy and policy in 2018 can be traced back to Kim’s New Year Address on 1 January. In his address to the nation, Kim sought to improve the “frozen inter-Korean relations’, ease military tension on the peninsula and to dispatch a North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. Accordingly, cross-border communications between the two Koreas was reopened for the first time in two years on 3 January, while the Winter Olympics saw the two Koreas march together in the opening ceremony as Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong headed a high-level delegation to the games and extended an offer for President Moon Jae-in to meet with the North Korean leader in Pyeongyang.
Following this, on 27 April 2018, the world watched as Kim stepped into South Korea over the demarcation line on the DMZ, following which Kim and Moon joined hands and walked north before returning south to commence formal proceedings. The instance marked the first time since the 1953 Korean War armistice that a Northern leader has entered the South, and the first instance of a Southern leader entering the North since 2007. The achievements of the summit were embodied within the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, the substance of which included several core articles identifying points of agreement between the two Koreas, addressed potential regional security flashpoints and appealed for the negotiation of a Peace treaty as a formal conclusion to the Korean War. Both sides dismantled their propaganda loudspeakers stationed along the DMZ on 1 May in accordance with Article 2(1) of the Panmunjom agreement, marking the first effective step in its implementation.
However, disagreements endure over the nature of denuclearization as it applies on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang's contention of, and commitment to, complete denuclearization is one which seeks to apply to all parties on the Korean peninsula. The implicit intent of such an outlook is to either enforce denuclearization on the US or force the eviction of US military forces from South Korea. Evidently this differs from Washington's consistent demands for North Korea alone to undergo "comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible" nuclear disarmament.
Further to this, North Korea has also been known to haphazardly retreat from its peaceful overtures, a common and cyclical tactic by the North which is utilized to gather international attention and extract concessions. North Korea abruptly cancelled into-Korea family reunions in 2013 days before its scheduling, conducted prohibited long-range rocket launch weeks after agreeing to suspend tests in exchange for food, and withdrawing last-minute from a meeting between Vice President Pence and Kim’s sister during the Winter Olympics.
North Korean interests
For North Korea, the summit and meeting between a sitting US President and North Korean leader provided a significant domestic and international propaganda opportunity. The summit help reinforce the authority of Kim among his citizens as an able diplomat, negotiator and paramount leader whom met and negotiated with the world’s leading superpower as equals. To the international community, the successful summit indicated North Korea’s bona fide willingness to reform its pariah status and commit to denuclearization, while opening the opportunity for the relaxing of sanctions and humanitarian aid.
Accordingly, North Korea’s repeated threats to cancel the Singapore Summit prior to 12 June draws much similarity to the present state of hostile verbal diplomacy, and provides a recent and suited precedent against which the US may derive its subsequent engagement with the regime.
First, and most probable, is that Kim’s threat of cancellation was a tactic used to strengthen his negotiating hand vis-à-vis the US. In drawing the Singapore Summit into doubt, Pyongyang sought to remind the US and South Korea that they ultimately hold the leverage in inter-Korean relations and the summit, and that they will not be pressured into doing something contrary to their national interest.
Where Kim is the leader of an authoritarian state, there existed little-to-no apparent political pressure pushing him to pursue the Singapore Summit, nor consequences had he withdrawn entirely. This contributed to Kim’s desire to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea, a tactic proven successful when Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw his attendance at the summit on 24 May, a decision which caused much distress for his unaware ally President Moon Jae-In. The maintenance of a united front between the two treaty allies of South Korea and the US must be considered paramount to avoiding defeat in detail.
Second is the suggestion that Kim was seeking to sow fear, doubt or uncertainty into US allies in the region. Just as Trump’s seeming unconditional acquiescence to Pyongyang’s demands to halt joint drills with its military partners has undermined the trust of many within South Korea and Japan of his commitment to their security alliances, any further unconditional concessions here borders on appeasement and breeds uncertainty into US leadership in the Asia-Pacific.
Speculation may be made that the substance of North Korea’s strategy of threatening withdrawal from the Singapore Summit was devised in conjunction with Beijing, arising during Kim’s trip to China between 25 to 28 March. Where China remains a close ally of the regime, and may have covertly provided North Korea with a security guarantee and material support its engagement with the US and South Korea leading to the Summit, China’s strategic objectives in East Asia must be considered. The successful achievement of a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula thus requires that the interests and objectives of the US be aligned with China’s.
Finally, the doubts sown by North Korea into the Singapore Summit was in part attributed to domestic pressures. Following the threats of summit cancellation, it emerged that Kim’s anticipated attendance at the summit had elicited concerns that such would expose him to a military coup, or other attempts to remove him from power domestically. Kim’s period of leadership has been marked by a series of internal conflicts and alleged coups resulting in the elimination of army chief Ri Yong-ho, the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, and the continuous series of purging of senior officials in consolidating his position after assuming power in 2011. Consequently, Kim’s highly anticipated May 2015 trip to Russia to attend the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war was cancelled owing to “internal Korean affairs”.
Accordingly, Kim’s application of pressure against the US could be a means of furthering his domestic image as a strongman, validated the success of his economic reforms, and to reassure his generals of his continued support for the army-first Song-gun policy, whilst bolstering his leadership position among his cabinet of opportunistic officials.
Given North Korea’s pattern of action, it is determinable that the endless cycle of hostility and conflict will continue, unless the US maintains a united front with its treaty ally South Korea, engages China as a partner in pursuing peace on the Korean peninsula, and navigates the dynamics of North Korea’s domestic politics.
Where the Singapore Summit was a landmark moment, its substance within the Joint Statement bore much similarity to the series of former US-North Korean agreements. Such was complicated by the notion that both sides do not feel overly pressured to pursue peace. Indeed, Kim appears satisfied with the status quo while Trump remains comfortable in the use of military force in responding to geopolitical issues. This is worsened by the enduring, fundamental and fatal difference of opinion over the definition and application of denuclearization. It is easy to win a war, hard to win a peace.
However, in deriving upon the precedent of events which unfolded leading up to the Singapore Summit, it is hoped that the US can expand beyond its orthodox responses to North Korea, demonstrate its capacity to draw upon its experiences, restore its leadership position within Asia, and achieve a permanent and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.
Jonathan Lim is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.