The US and North Korea – paving a path to peace or disappointment?

Recent months have seen a notable change in diplomatic relations between the American President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In 2017, ‘culturally-charged insults’ like ‘little rocket man’ and a ‘frightened dog’ were exchanged. Lately, however, the rhetoric between the two leaders has become significantly less hostile, as is evident from Trump’s description of Kim as ‘very honourable’ in April 2018.

This article was written by Sara Seppänen. Sara is a Swedish undergraduate in the War Studies BA programme at King’s College London. As a European student she came to London with the aim of engaging in a global community and learning about politics and security. Apart from nuclear non-proliferation, her research interests include global insurgency and media.

[Editor’s note: This article was written on 5 June 2018, prior to the summit.]

Recent months have seen a notable change in diplomatic relations between the American President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In 2017, ‘culturally-charged insults’ like ‘little rocket man’ and a ‘frightened dog’ were exchanged. Lately, however, the rhetoric between the two leaders has become significantly less hostile, as is evident from Trump’s description of Kim as ‘very honourable’ in April 2018.

The improvements in DPRK-USA relations have been characterised by actions such as Kim’s decision to release three American citizens from captivity. This was interpreted as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Despite much hesitation, the leaders have now settled on a date for a summit in Singapore: 12 June 2018. The forthcoming talk between the two high-profile leaders is historically unprecedented, but experience shows that the apparent change in relations may be nothing but hot air and empty promises. Scepticism has been at the root of DPRK-USA relations for decades, and this has only been exacerbated by Trump’s insensitivity and Kim’s lack of transparency.

27 April 2018 saw the smiling leaders of the DPRK and South Korea cross back and forth over the border that separates their two countries, yet I could not help but remain cynical regarding the likelihood of success in the upcoming summit. The meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un revealed the necessity of managing unexpected moments well. Moon handled Kim’s unexpected invitation to step over to the north side of the border with diplomatic finesse.

By contrast, Trump’s history of political blunders is worrying. Although Trump, having served as president for a good 16 months by now, should not be accused of being completely unaware of diplomatic behaviour his earlier unpredictability still creates cause for concern. The peace-building process between the USA and the DPRK requires a high level of political sophistication and could easily be compromised by improper rhetoric or other unexpected slights, even if these were unintentional. It is, however, it is not only the USA that might engage in, and suffer the consequences of, impulsive and harsh behaviour. The DPRK’s leadership has also shown significant unpredictability. For example, Kim recently accused America of deliberately provoking the DPRK by deploying military assets in its region and misinterpreting the ‘peace-loving’ intentions of the DPRK as a sign of weakness. As the potential for improved relations on 12 June depends to a great extent on the two leaders’ level of trust in each other, observers should not be too optimistic.

Furthermore, the question of the DPRK’s nuclear disarmament requires delicate negotiation and skilful management in order to succeed. American demands for the DPRK to take irreversible steps towards denuclearisation, as advocated by Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, indicate a hard line approach to negotiations. Considering that Kim regards nuclear deterrence as the strongest weapon to maximise his country’s security, America’s tough stance might cause a diplomatic deadlock. This could result in either of the two nations calling off the summit once again.

Although optimists could point to Kim’s recent closing of the DPRK’s nuclear test site as a sign of cooperation, it is suspicious that foreign experts have not been allowed access to the site. By contrast, South Africa, the only nation ever to have developed and later relinquished nuclear weapons, welcomed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to legitimately verify the abolishment of their nuclear program in 1993. Despite the demonstration of a ‘huge explosion’, experts such as Jenny Town argue that Kim’s closing of the test site has had little effect on the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. Therefore, one major concern for those hoping that 12 June will be a step towards improved DPRK-USA relations is Kim’s failure to prove that he is genuinely willing to disarm. Kim’s superficial compliance with American demands for nuclear disarmament might be nothing but empty blandishments to convince the USA to relieve the pressure of sanctions.

The consequences of the USA’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal are yet to be fully felt, but the situation will most likely inhibit efforts to establish peace between the USA and the DPRK. Trump’s announcement that the USA will withdraw from its nuclear deal with Iran was intended to send a clear message to Kim: ‘The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them’. Contrary to the belief of Trump and his advisers, however, this move risks discouraging Kim from engaging in good faith negotiations. Withdrawing from the Iran deal casts doubt on American’s readiness to maintain and honour long-term agreements. As Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution has argued, Trump’s decision not to stick to the Iran nuclear deal will give Kim less incentive to make important concessions.

Kim also has a history of not maintaining peace deals, including those signed with his neighbour South Korea. For instance, both the 2000 and 2007 Inter-Korean summits failed to generate any tangible results, partly because the DPRK made no attempt to keep its promises. Similarly, earlier attempts by the USA to strengthen international security through negotiation failed to halt the DPRK’s nuclear build-up. The sense of mutual suspicion in the DPRK-USA relationship, owing to each country’s history of failing to honour their agreements, will most likely result in little progress being made on 12 June.

In conclusion, observers should remain sceptical about the possibility of any significant changes in the relationship between the USA and the DPRK. While one might hope that recent events are the first steps on a path to peace, the uncertainty created by unstable leadership is likely to create further friction, both before and during the 12 June summit. Despite some progress, both Trump and Kim continue to send ambiguous signals. If Trump’s lack of diplomatic finesse or Kim’s unwillingness to fully disarm becomes apparent during the summit, there is, to say the least, limited potential for cooperation and diplomatic breakthrough. Ultimately, it is far from certain that lasting peace will be established between the USA and the DPRK, largely owing to the deep-rooted dynamics of vicious distrust between the two nations.

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