President Trump announced today that the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled for June 12 is cancelled.
Hope for the summit was sky high, and even more so after a dramatic thaw in relations between North and South Korea this year. Banned from the Olympics, North Korea accepted South Korea’s offer to include a handful of their athletes as part of a ‘Korean’ team for the Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea. And only last month, the leaders of South and North Korea met face-to-face and reached agreements to work jointly on several issues of mutual interest.
All that was followed by an agreement for Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, to meet with President Trump next month.All this after North Korea had relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons in the face of international resistance, UN resolutions and increasing sanctions. Though that isn’t really new and has been going on for decades. Current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is relentless in the same pursuit of nuclear weapons as his father was before him. North Korea has a generational history of ignoring international opinion even in the face of sanctions and all forms of diplomatic efforts.
Now, in the space of only a few months, there was a complete change and North Korea offered to give up its nuclear weapons program, has unilaterally started dismantling its test facilities even before negotiations with the US have started. Now all that is in question.
What brought North Korea to the Table?
In the last few years, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons program. It has conducted nuclear tests, conducted several missile tests and provocatively sent some of the test launches near Japan. Then, as if to verbalize the intent of all this, the North Korean government announced that its missiles could now reach the United states and threatened to use them against the US.
Since taking office, President Trump has worked several angles to tighten sanctions on North Korea. He has visited China to get help in pressuring Kim Jong Un, from North Korea’s only real ally. The Trump Administration has convinced the United Nations to impose more harsh sanctions that would have an impact on the North Korean ability to maintain its military readiness. And probably most importantly, the US, South Korea and Japan are more aligned in taking a tough line on enforcing sanctions. South Korea has intercepted several oil tankers destined for North Korea in violation of sanctions. And actually enforcing sanctions vigorously is something that had never been done before. According to many reported intelligence sources, the effect on the North Korean economy has been swift and noticeable.
President Trump has been quick to take credit for getting North Korea to the negotiating table. And in typical style, the President has taken every opportunity to promote himself and how he deserves the credit for the progress made with North Korea.
The other factor that made North Korea appear to change so dramatically was initially little reported in the media. The nuclear facilities that North Korea has begun dismantling iss a facility that it could no longer use. China scientists reported, and others later confirmed, that the nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri, in the mountains, had collapsed after the most recent tests. The tests had caused the area to become unstable and the ground had collapsed on top of the facility which had been dug into the mountain. All six of North Korea’s nuclear tests had been conducted at the site under Mount Mantap.
North Korea was getting a lot of positive press and PR for doing something that they would have had to do anyway. The threat of leaked radiation and potential instability of the buried equipment and materials meant that North Korea would have had to do the work anyway. But in a case of ‘turning lemons into lemonade’, they announced that would dismantle some of their nuclear capabilities in good faith and ahead of talks with the United States. Yet that would have happened pretty much no matter what else occurred.
The Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its formation have a history of playing diplomatic games. For example, President Clinton reached a deal that he hoped would stop North Korea’s development in return for relief from sanctions. At the time, North Korea was in the midst of a famine that killed huge numbers of its people. Just after the sanctions were lifted and food shipments began in earnest, North Korea changed their minds and ramped up nuclear research again. So there was a question about whether North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un were serious to start with, or whether the setback with their nuclear test facility was going to make them stop anyway and they were just trying to get something in return.
The sanctions imposed by the United Nations late last year were more strict, and are being more strictly enforced than any before. There was definitely an effect on the North Korean economy.
Yet Kim Jong Un hasn’t cared about how much sanctions have hurt before. He lives in luxury, but has been willing to let millions of his people die during his rule from sanctions and famines because he would rather keep building his military and pursue nuclear missiles. So why was this different? Or was it?-was he just playing for time and for whatever he could get, while planning to resume nuclear testing whenever he could down the line.
That doesn’t explain why the summit fell apart, however. Even if North Korea was playing a delaying game and/or trying to get something from the US and others, why would the summit be cancelled?
In recent weeks, North Korea has threatened to cancel and said that maybe they won’t give up their nuclear program after promising to do so. Why? Well, the most obvious reason is President Trump.
Though he can be credited with getting international support, including from North Korea’s ally China, to tighten sanctions, he has a side of his character that always takes away some of the benefit of anything he does. I think all would admit that this President has a mental condition that requires that he brag to anyone and everywhere he can about himself and as much as he can to make others tell him how wonderful he is, as well. When the summit was announced, Trump could not help himself and repeatedly said that it was his pressure and his talent that forced North Korea to do what he wanted. A part of that may be true, but repeatedly telling an opponent that they were going to do what you said they were going to do is not really a good way to keep that going. Let others figure that out without rubbing it in the face of your opponent. That is probably even more the case when you are talking about a culture that puts more emphasis on maintaining ‘face’.
The problem became worse when Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton went on TV and declared that the goal was to negotiate with North Korea to achieve an end like was achieved in Libya…well, in Libya, the leader was overthrown and then killed. While that may be the wish, you don’t tell someone you want to get an agreement with that you hope that in the end they will lose power and be killed.
North Korea’s game in the past has been to say they will negotiate if they get relief and as soon as they get relief they go back to old habits. Sanctions must remain in place and there must be a will to enforce them. Recently, the United Nations identified ten major oil companies who were selling oil to intermediaries, who would then offload the oil to North Korean ships in the middle of the ocean. The UN has asked for stepped up enforcement.
And for now, North Korea is still going to dismantle/shut off their nuclear test facility. Of course, that is only because it had been destroyed already anyway. But whatever other hope for North Korea’s denuclearization has been put on hold, in best case. It could be that North Korea wasn’t really serious to start with and history says that may be the more likely case. But it’s also true that one of President Trump’s biggest hurdles in dealing with other sovereign countries is his own big mouth. He probably has been effective in several areas. When that happens, he should just shut up and let others speak to his accomplishments. That will get a lot more done.