It’s a Question of Time For Kim Jung-un
By Drew Horne
Prospects for continued peace talks in the near future are not promising given the abrupt ending and confusing aftermath of the February 27-28 Hanoi Summit. U.S. and DPRK blame each other for the premature conclusion but tell the same story: The U.S. walked out rather than accept a deal that gave sweeping sanctions relief for the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor but, in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words, “still leaves missiles, still leaves warheads and weapons systems.” While it’s not the outcome world leaders were hoping for, it didn’t come as a surprise to US Intelligence officials who have dealt with North Korea’s unwillingness to give up their nuclear program in the past.
In the days and weeks following the Summit, Kim Jung-un has been trying to salvage the political situation in his own country while world leaders struggle to decide on the path ahead. The largest proponent of continued peace talks is President Moon Jae-in who has had three meetings with the North Korean leader in the last year and is seeking a way to broker 3-way talks between the North and the US.
Beijing is also watching closely and, much like the U.S. and DPRK responses to the collapsed summit, has been optimistic about the progress of the summit and prospects for the future. China, along with Russia, is the North’s closest ally and economic partner. China plays a large role in Korean denuclearization, as President Trump reported after the Hanoi summit: “We did talk about China today, a lot…He’s (Kim) getting along with China and so are we.” If anything, the abrupt walk-out in Hanoi sends a foreboding signal ahead of trade negotiations with Presidents Trump and Xi. Will Trump walk out on China if they aren’t willing to make concessions? Not necessarily, but it does send a message.
The International response has been optimistic, but what is really going on in Pyongyang? While the state-sponsored Korea Central News Agency reported that the talks were a “constructive and candid exchange,” they omitted details in favor of unsubstantiated praises of Kim Jung-un while taking a defensive approach towards the US going forward, saying that the North “…cannot guarantee that this opportunity will be offered to the U.S. once more.” There has been a flurry of activity as North Korean leaders try to play up their supreme leader’s strengths while figuring out their strategy going forward. Seoul-based Yonhap news reports the airing of a 75-minute documentary on the Hanoi summit in the North that highlights so-called progress and success thanks to Mr. Kim.
The North is in a sticky situation. UN and US sanctions are hitting hard at a time when the North is experiencing some of the worst crop shortages and falling food production in over a decade. Perhaps because of this, Chairman Kim has shown a more diplomatic side than his predecessors in his willingness to meet President Moon for peace talks in 2018. The Panmunjom Declaration of April 27, 2018, asserts both leaders’ calls for peace and economic harmony on the Korean peninsula: “South and North Korea will actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
Desperate for anything that could help lift sanctions, Kim Jung-un has pledged several times since 2017 to end missile test and has declared his intention to work towards total denuclearization. That makes it all the harder for him to go home knowing he overplayed his hand in Hanoi, insisting on sanctions relief for too few concessions in nuclear and missile development.
So, what does the failed summit mean for the future of the Korean Peninsula? For now, Kim is playing damage control. They condemned new South Korea-U.S. military drills even though the ending of larger joint exercises was meant as a step forward in relations with the North. Just days after the summit collapsed, South Korean intelligence agencies reported that reconstruction work has restarted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. State-run media has taken a condemning tone in recent days, accusing the U.S. of not keeping their word to work towards peace. Kim is returning, perhaps by habit, to brinksmanship and hard-on-America rhetoric, but with a starving country and no end to sanctions in sight, he might be forced back to the negotiating table sooner than he expects. Hanoi was a critical step in the negotiations. It proved that the U.S. knew more about the North’s secret facilities than even the North expected and that Trump wasn’t going to ease sanctions for just anything. Neighboring China, Japan, and South Korea are urging continued negotiations, and the U.S. and DPRK have pledged to continue communicating. Once Kim has a chance to generate positive press in his own country, he’ll be back to the negotiating table asking for sanctions relief. It’s only a matter of time.
- 1) Sanger, David E., and Edward Wong. “How the Trump-Kim Summit Failed: Big Threats, Big Egos, Bad Bets.” The New York Times, March 2, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/world/asia/trump-kim-jong-un-summit.html.
- 2) Lee, Yen Nee. “South Korea May Be the Biggest Loser in Failed Talks at the Trump-Kim Summit.” CNBC, February 28, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/01/trump-kim-vietnam-summit-breakdown-impact-on-south-korea-moon-jae-in.html.
- 3) Byun, Duk-kun. “(2nd LD) Seoul to Seek 3-way Talks to Resume U.S.-N. Korea Denuclearization Talks.” Yonhap News Agency, March 4, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20190304009652315.
- 4 ) Bodeen, Christopher. “China Calls US-North Korea Summit an ‘important Step’.” Miami Herald, March 8, 2019. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/article227285884.html.
- 5) Huang, Joyce, and Nike Ching. “As Hanoi Summit Falters, Trump Sends China a Message.” Voice of America, February 28, 2019. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://www.voanews.com/a/as-hanoi-summit-falters-trump-sends-china-a-message/4807607.html.
- 6) “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, President Trump Hold Second-day Talks.” KCNA Watch, March 1, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1551508216-784586691/supreme-leader-kim-jong-un-president-trump-hold-second-day-talks/. State-run media source.
- 7) Gordon, Michael R., Jonathan Cheng, and Vivian Salama. “U.S. and North Korea Trade Blame — Vietnam Summit Ends with no Nuclear Accord; both Sides Leave Door Open for More Talks.” Wall Street Journal, Mar 01, 2019, Eastern edition. https://search.proquest.com/docview/2186957408?accountid=4488.
- 8) “N.K. TV Airs Documentary on Kim-Trump Summit.” Yonhap News Agency, March 7, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/PYH20190307009000320?section=image/nk.
- 9) Hyonhee Shin. “U.N. Warns of Worst Food Harvest in North Korea in a Decade.” Reuters, March 6, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-sanctions-food/u-n-warns-of-worst-food-harvest-in-north-korea-in-a-decade-idUSKCN1QN0LG.
- 10) “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.” Reuters, April 27, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-northkorea-southkorea-summit-statemen/panmunjom-declaration-for-peace-prosperity-and-unification-of-the-korean-peninsula-idUKKBN1HY193.
- 11) “S. Korea-U.S. Starts New Joint Military Drill.” KCNA Watch, March 7, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1551969613-377260397/s-korea-u-s-starts-new-joint-military-drill/.
- 12) Choe, Sang-Hun. “North Korea Has Started Rebuilding Key Missile-Test Facilities, Analysts Say.” New York Times, March 5, 2019. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/05/world/asia/north-korea-missile-site.html?module=inline.
- 13) “제2차 조미수뇌회담의 론점과 문제해결의 방도 [The Point of the Second Summit Meeting and the Way of Solving the Problem].” The Chosun Sinbo Online, March 1, 2019. Accessed March 8, 2019. http://chosonsinbo.com/2019/03/001-9/. Korean language only. Full article available at https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1551441616-314342401/제2차 조미수뇌회담의 론점과 문제해결의 방도/ .
- 14) Sanger, 2019