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After a lull, will it be a storm again? With the many rounds of formal talks between US officials and their counterparts from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remaining fruitless, there are portends of the Korean Peninsula heading back to the pre-Panmunjom days of hostilities and a potential re-run of the Kim Jong-Un regime’s uninhibited display of its military hardware. At least, that is what Pyongyang has threatened to do, as a ‘Christmas gift’, implying the possible firing of a missile system, the demonstration of a satellite launch capability or for the worst, even a nuclear weapon test.

While the Kim regime’s threat is evidently to pressure Washington to offer a salvaging formula for the stalled talks before the year-end, that the Trump administration has not made any decisive move towards that end, other than sending its Special Envoy for North Korea to the region, is a testament to the fact that the momentum for a detente in the Peninsula may not endure. Notwithstanding the huge expectations fanned by the Panmunjom Declaration between the two Koreas in April 2018, which was followed by historic summits between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un in Singapore (June 2018) and Hanoi (February 2019), the reality of these interactions, however, has been that little ground could be covered on facilitating any credible pathways toward lasting peace in the Peninsula.

Albeit the political leaderships had reiterated keenness for a tangible agreement, it is clear that the essential quid-pro-quo necessary for a breakthrough – waiver of sanctions in lieu of a de-nuclearisation roadmap – has not fructified in the many rounds of interactions between the two sides. For that matter, it was amply evident from the outset that there will be constraints on both parties on the limits to which they could stretch their strategic flexibilities in order to arrive at a middle-ground. In fact, at no stage during their two-year interactions has either the US shown any inclination towards waiving on sanctions nor has there been any tangible demonstration of intent by Pyongyang to undertake credible steps towards de-nuclearisation.

Was Kim serious about de-nuclearisation? 

While the Trump administration seemed enthusiastic on striking a deal with the Kim regime, partly to recover from the blemish of the Iranian fiasco, it remained an enigma throughout on what Kim’s actual intention could be, and whether he was serious about de-nuclearisation and other measures that could transform the strategic milieu of the Peninsula. Was Kim realistically hoping that Washington could make the first move to cut down sanctions and enable Pyongyang to work on incremental progress towards de-nuclearisation? Or was Kim merely seeking to buy time and divert the global gaze on his nuclear and missile programmes? For that matter, could Kim be trusted on a committed de-nuclearisation roadmap, especially when he had preferred to restart testing of short-range delivery systems even when the dialogue was on?

State Department officials privy to US-North Korea talks, with whom I conversed recently, shed light on some peculiar aspects of this dialogue. First, in none of the delegation-level talks did the North Korean side have any technical member who could discuss the finer details of a de-nuclearisation roadmap. In fact, the DPRK side during the initial deliberations largely comprised of high-level officials from the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) and its intelligence wing, the United Front Department (UFD).1)Relevant to note that Kim Yong-chol, Vice Chairman of the WPK Central Committee, who led the talks with US, was reported to have been removed as head of UFD in April 2019, two months before the Trump-Kim meeting in Panmunjom. See “North Korea replaces director of United Front Department,” Hankyoreh, 25 April 2019. Further, it was only at the October 2019 dialogue in Stockholm that the DPRK delegation had government-level officials, but at comparatively junior levels and not empowered to take significant decisions or provide commitments at the dialogue table.2)

The second aspect was then a natural outcome: that the DPRK delegation did not have any concrete proposals to share and had constantly referred to ‘consultations with the government’ but hardly got back with any initiatives to take the dialogue forward. The last dialogue in Stockholm, the US officials feel, was destined for failure as the DPRK, besides following their familiar approach at the negotiations, had come prepared with statements for the media, which indicated their decision to break away from the talks on the second day itself. The DPRK representative, Kim Myong Gil, in his statement to the press had blamed the US side for “its failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.”

The apparent grouse of the North Korean side was that the Americans, despite talking of ‘new method and ‘creative solutions’, was not offering any lucrative proposals on waiving sanctions (described as ‘empty hope’). US officials, on the other hand, insisted that they were ready to discuss all issues but did not find a receptive approach to any of their proposals from the DPRK delegation. Though the State Department press release described the talks positively and proposed another meeting two weeks later, the DPRK statement of October 7th was unrelenting in its attack by terming the US delegation as taking a “trite stance” and alleging that the latter had “made no preparations for the negotiations but sought to meet its political goal of abusing the dialogue for its domestic political events” (the US election debates).3)4) The statement rejected proposals for fresh talks by describing them as “sickening negotiations” and that it had no hopes of the US producing “in just a fortnight” a proposal that meets their expectations. It ends by warning that unless the US takes steps to abandon “the hostile policy towards the DPRK” and comes up with a new calculation method, the dealings between the two “might immediately come to an end.”

The purported year-end deadline thus seems intended to apply pressure on President Trump who is reeling in domestic turmoil, notably the impeachment proceedings at the US Congress, and an unstable national security team as evident from the exit of the proactive John Bolton. That Special Envoy, Stephen Biegun, who is currently in the region, is tipped to be second-ranking official at Foggy Bottom (and potential Acting Secretary if current incumbent Mike Pompeo runs for Senate) could be indication that the State Department might be taking over the mantle of negotiations from the White House, which also implies a more ‘diplomatic’ approach to Pyongyang than ‘political’. Biegun, in fact, has already rejected the year-end deadline but also indicating that the US is ready to resume negotiations “at any time,” thus putting the onus back on Pyongyang.5)

What will be the ‘Christmas gift’?

While observers of the Korean scene speculate the possibility of Kim planning something spectacular during the Christmas week, State Department officials are sceptical of Kim doing anything that could further endanger his position, vis-à-vis the sanctions, and imperil the political space available with Trump. Yet, going by the unengaging approach of the DPRK delegations at the talks and the subsequent hostility shown by Pyongyang, one cannot rule out the possibility of Kim returning to theatrics and brinkmanship of pre-Panmunjom days.

(USAF RC-135W 62-4125 TORA21 on task over the Korean Peninsula at 31,000 feet; Source: AircraftSpots)

State Department officials, nonetheless, rule out the possibility of any long-range missile launches or nuclear test; instead, they consider the probability of Pyongyang demonstrating some level of a satellite launch capability, including a potential civilian rocket launch, which could be seen to be within ‘acceptable’ thresholds of deviant behaviour. While the numerous US Air Force (USAF) surveillance flights over the Korean Peninsula might have picked up heightened activity at the specific North Korean facilities to validate this assumption, the fact that the recent two tests undertaken by Pyongyang within a fortnight was at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, known to be a dual-use facility for both satellite launch and liquid-fuel missile engine tests, indicates possibilities on both spectrums.

The ball, hence, is clearly in Kim’s court to decide which direction he seeks to proceed. While a satellite launch might still keep some space open for re-engagement, a long-range missile test, particularly of inter-continental range, could shut the doors for any rapprochement. Nonetheless, the game-changing moment could be the latest joint resolution by Russia and China seeking easing of some sanctions on North Korea in order to encourage Pyongyang to restart negotiations on de-nuclearisation.6) Though Washington has rejected this proposal as ‘pre-mature’, it is evident that Kim is keeping his diplomatic channels open.

By A Vinod Kumar

Associate Fellow
Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses


References –

1. Relevant to note that Kim Yong-chol, Vice Chairman of the WPK Central Committee, who led the talks with US, was reported to have been removed as head of UFD in April 2019, two months before the Trump-Kim meeting in Panmunjom. See “North Korea replaces director of United Front Department,” Hankyoreh, 25 April 2019.
2. Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor, “North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden,” Reuters, 5 October 2019.
3. Min Joo Kim, “North Korea gives Trump administration year-end deadline to change ‘hostile policy’ if it wants nuclear talks to continue,” The Washington Post, 7 October 2019.
4. Statement by DPRK Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Fate of DPRK-US dialogue depends on US attitude: DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesperson,” Pyongyang Times, 7 October 2019.
5. Justin McCurry, “US North Korea envoy dismisses year-end deadline for talks breakthrough,” The Guardian, 16 December 2019. Jessie Yeung, “‘Let’s get this done’: US special envoy urges North Korea to restart nuclear talks,” CNN, 16 December 2019.
6. Russia, China propose easing N Korea sanctions, US says premature,” AlJazeera, 17 December 2019.
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