The peace wind, that started blowing from the day when North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung-un, indicated in his New Year address that he would hold a summit with his counterpart in the South, has been sustained. In the interregnum, there have been two summits between Mr Kim and the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, yet another between the two as well as a meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim in June in Singapore. Now there is the prospect for a second summit between Trump and Kim, possibly in October, details of which such as the venue and dates are yet to be disclosed.
The question that arises is: Why this sudden flurry of diplomatic activity with a positive intent, a far cry from the fire and fury ignited by nuclear tests, missile launches that took the world to the brink of a nuclear conflagration? What are the compulsions of the stakeholders involved or are there are any more compelling reasons for the North and the US to see sense and talk? Kim seemed to have made some vague promises during the Singapore summit to achieve denuclearisation. Since the issue is rather complicated and it is not easy to see any concrete reason for the sudden turnaround, at least one can hazard some guesses. Notwithstanding the desire to talk, the trust deficit between the US and North Korea does not seem to have gone away.
As the countdown for the second Trump-Kim summit began after leaders of the US and North Korea agreed to engage in top-down negotiations to close the gap found in working-level denuclearisation talks that followed the first summit in Singapore, the imponderables keep surfacing time and again, a grim reminder of how bumpy is the path to achieve denuclearisation. One reasoning in the US is that Trump wants to have an advantage ahead of the midterm election on November 6, which is why a cutting a “big deal” on denuclearisation appears to be an attractive option.
The seeds of a second Trump-Kim summit were sown by the North Korean President when he sent a letter to the US President, the primary purpose of which was to convey a request for another meeting. This was confirmed by White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders, and was also endorsed by National Security Adviser John Bolton, a hawk on North Korea. Interestingly, an unpredictable Trump praised Kim for showing his good faith to resume talks by setting a timeline for denuclearisation ~ till December 2020.
This was during a meeting with the South Korean special envoy and the National Security Office chief, Chung Eui-yong. Trump was also floored by Kim’s charm as evident during the military parade and celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s birth on September 9. Unlike in previous years, intercontinental ballistic missiles were excluded from the grandstanding.
The celebrations were attended by guests from abroad, including Li Zhanshu and Valentina Matvienko, each holding the third most powerful positions in the hierarchies of China and Russia. China’s President, Xi Jinping, did not attend.
In an obvious gesture of respect towards the ongoing efforts to mend fences and resume meaningful dialogue between North Korea and the international community, the parade lacked the ballistic missile systems that had once shocked observers. Though the celebration charmed President Trump, anyone who claims the North Koreans have run out of ways to surprise analysts is sorely mistaken.
It has transpired that inter- Korean relations took centrestage and was of riveting interest during the parade in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium. The event also featured tens of thousands of performers and was attended by President Kim. The “grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance” also formed part of the celebrations. The absence of ICBM on display and the inclusion of cultural events do not in any way signal Kim’s change of heart or intentions to give up the nuclear arsenal. It was too credulous of Trump to think on such lines.
If the second summit is held, Trump would favour Washington to be the venue. This could be intended to highlight the negotiation process, where Kim and Trump meet at the high table of the Oval Office. There is also a possibility that Kim might reject the idea of visiting Washington and in turn make a counter proposal to hold the meeting in Pyongyang. The third possibility is to hold the second summit in the neutral venue of Singapore once again to discuss more practical matters regarding denuclearisation.
There could again be roadblocks. If Kim’s aim is that the sanctions must be eased, if not lifted altogether, the US is unlikely to oblige as it seems determined to retain the curbs till North Korea denuclearises altogether. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on September 14 that enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea was critical to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
His remarks came after the US accused Russia of altering an independent UN report to cover up Moscow’s alleged violation of UN sanctions on North Korea. A day earlier, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had said that Russia exerted pressure on the independent sanctions monitors to amend a report that was eventually submitted to the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee in August.
Both Russia and China are believed to have pushed for the Security Council to ease sanctions on Pyongyang since the Trump-Kim summit in June. Remaining unmoved, the US imposed sanctions on September 13 on two information technology companies based in China and Russia for supporting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
The US accused the companies located in Beijing and Moscow, but controlled by Pyongyang, of moving illicit funds to North Korea. The US suspected the China-based China Silver Star, its North Korean CEO Jong Song Hwa and its Russia-based sister company Volasys Silver Star were acting as front companies and were engaged in illicit fund transfer to Pyongyang.
The US called an urgent meeting of the Security Council in response to what it says are efforts by some countries “to undermine and obstruct” sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions come at a time when the US is maintaining pressure on the North Korean government in its negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. With such an inflexible position by the US, and Kim’s determination to be free from sanctions without dramatically doing away with its arsenal, the second Trump-Kim summit as speculated could be rocked before even it takes place.
(To be concluded)
The writer is former ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, and Lok Sabha Research Fellow.