Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia’s international clout has dropped tremendously. Many nations Moscow considered to be friendly have jumped ship and disavowed having any sort of relationship with Russia, whether economic, diplomatic, or military. Except for China, Cuba and a handful of other staunch allies, Russia is very much alone. North Korea is not one of the nation-states shunning Russia however, and its loyalty is being rewarded. In a letter to Kim Jong Un for Korea’s Liberation Day, Vladimir Putin said closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang are in both countries’ interests and will help strengthen the security and stability of the Korean peninsula and the Northeastern Asian region. Kim replied with his own letter, reminding Putin of the long friendship shared between North Korea and Russia. The burgeoning relationship really caught the world’s attention in July when North Korea officially recognized two Russian-backed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine as sovereign nation-states.
Russia is not the only power competing for North Korea’s attention. South Korea is also trying to entice Pyongyang into closer relations as well as eventual denuclearization. Today South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday offered comprehensive economic assistance to North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang has been quiet over the summer. The underground nuclear test many analysts were expecting never came about. With numerous crises going on simultaneously around the world, Kim Jong Un has been operating under the radar for the most part. With Seoul and Moscow now visibly courting the North, expect this to change in the coming weeks and months. North Korea will be back on the world’s radar scopes for better or worse by late September.
North Korea is a flashpoint threatening to burst even before 2020 is upon us. December has seen the tension in northeast Asia ratchet up amid vague North Korean threats and Trump administration assurances that it will contend with any North Korean ‘Christmas Gift’ decisively. Just one week remains until the North Korea-imposed end of the year deadline for the US to make concessions and revive the stalled nuclear talks takes effect. There has been widespread speculation concerning what action North Korea could take if the deadline passes without US concessions.
The greatest concern in Washington is that North Korea’s ‘Christmas Gift’ winds up being a provocative action that demands a swift, decisive US response. A long-range missile test is a perfect example of something that would leave the US no choice but to take action. Testing a missile with enough range to reach US territory is a red line. Should it be crossed by Kim Jong Un, the end result will almost certainly be a US military response of some sort.
North Korea’s ultimate goal is to persuade the United States to roll back the economic sanctions now in place while maintaining its status as a nuclear power. Where the US has sought to inextricably link sanction relief and denuclearization, North Korea has gone to extremes to keep them separate. There are signs of internal political pressure starting to build on the Pyongyang regime, and this could be one of the factors prompting Kim to adopt a hardline status. Contrary to some of the inaccurate assessments of the North Korean leader by a number of talking-heads in the media, Kim Jong Un is undoubtedly playing the role of a rational actor in this drama. His overall strategy has been predicated on regime survival and maintaining his position as supreme leader.
As it stands right now on this Christmas Day, North Korea’s vague threats are intended to keep the world guessing for at least another week. This is a topic that will undoubtedly be written about frequently in the coming days so I’m going to end it here for the moment.
As relations between the United States and North Korea started to grow less hostile in the spring months of 2018 it was apparent any period of détente that emerged between the two nations would likely contain a relatively short shelf life. In light of the direction events, and dialogue have been going in through recent days, it’s safe to say the expiration date is approaching. The differences between the positions of North Korea and the United States over the direction of negotiations on the future are wide, and unwavering. Pyongyang wants US policy to shift away from requiring unilateral denuclearization without any relief from the layers of economic negotiations currently in place. The US, of course, will not provide relief until denuclearization is underway.
Earlier this week, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called for the US to change its ‘hostile policies’ and insisted it was up to the US to determine what type of Christmas gift it would receive this year. This statement was followed up on Saturday by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song. In a press conference he said denuclearization has been removed from the negotiating table with the US. Today, President Trump warned that the good relationship between him and Kim Jong Un was on shaky ground as reports have surfaced indicating North Korea has resumed testing at the Sohae Satellite Launching Grounds. This missile test site was one supposedly closed down when US and North Korean relations were warming up. Trump said that the North has everything to lose by acting aggressively.
There is also the end of the year deadline set by Pyongyang to consider. It calls for the US to change its demands for North Korean denuclearization. If that does not occur, Kim Jong Un has warned that North Korea could decide to take a ‘new path’ in 2020. The growing concern is that the ‘new path’ will be a return to long-range missile and nuclear bomb testing. If this turns out to be the case, the war of words presently underway between the United States and North Korea could escalate to a more dangerous level rather quickly.
A North Korean weapons test earlier this weekend has raised questions and concerns about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s intentions regarding denuclearization, and the rut which US-North Korean negotiations appear to be caught in at the moment. Initial reports suggesting ballistic missiles were part of the test firing turned out to be false. South Korean military officials have confirmed that several multiple launch rocket projectiles were fired, including a new tactical guided weapon. Kim was on hand to witness the test, his presence suggesting it was intended to be seen as more than just a simple test firing.
Since Hanoi, negotiations on denuclearization have shown no progress. North Korea has renewed demands that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be excluded from negotiations. In late April, Kim made his first official trip to Russia, attempting to expand his international profile while at the same time sending a message to Washington. The US does not want to see North Korea and Russia growing closer and invariably opening the door for Vladimir Putin to disrupt negotiations.
The Trump administration continues to believe a denuclearization deal can be reached. This morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported President Trump’s position and reminded the world that this weekend’s North Korean weapons test did not pose a threat to South Korea, Japan, or the United States. The door is still open for North Korea, yet its apparent the Trump administration is not willing to wait indefinitely, and will not ease the strict economic sanctions currently in place.
North Korea is facing another growing problem. A food shortage is gripping the country following the worst harvest in over a decade. The current crisis is not approaching famine territory yet, however, in a matter of months this could change. It will be interesting to see how the deteriorating food situation will affect negotiations with the United States in the coming weeks. There’s a strong possibility that Washington’s patience could begin to wane if no progress is made soon.
Author’s Note: The next entry in the South China Sea series will come next Monday instead of tomorrow. Apologies for the abrupt change but the series will resume next week.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will travel to Washington DC in April for talks with President Trump on issues of mutual interest, as well as the latest developments with regard to North Korea and Kim Jong Un. The South Korean leader had played an active role as intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang in the weeks leading up to the first US-North Korean Summit in Singapore. Following that, Moon’s role, and that of his country, lessened. Trump and Kim took centerstage and diplomacy between the two nations no longer required the services of an intermediary.
The stalemate reached at the second summit in Hanoi last month could breathe new life into Moon’s prospects to play a pivotal role in efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Relations between the United States and North Korea are regressing temporarily as both sides analyze the situation, and plan their next respective moves. An intermediary could prove useful in the coming months to ensure no retrograde takes place, permanent or otherwise.
Moon’s problem is that he might be overestimating his usefulness at this point. To be fair, his efforts to bring the first summit to life were beneficial. The road to in-person talks between Trump and Kim would’ve been longer if Moon had not met his North Korean opposite at Panmunjom in April, 2018. This meeting threw down the gauntlet and opened the door to Singapore.
The stalemate at Hanoi gives him an opportunity to get back in the game. The matter at hand now is determining exactly how to go about achieving complete denuclearization. South Korea has no nuclear weapons so the southern half of the Korean Peninsula is already denuclearized. North Korea wants the heavy burden of US economic sanctions to be dropped before it takes any further steps towards dropping its nuclear weapons, and ballistic missile program. Moon is very limited with what he can offer Pyongyang to jumpstart the discussion.
South Korea’s president could find himself as Trump’s messenger. This might not be the role Moon wants, but it might wind up being the most crucial job if the United States, South Korea, and North Korea intend to get denuclearization efforts back on track soon.