In the space of one week Sri Lanka has turned into a real-life reality TV show. If the situation weren’t so dire for Sri Lankans, I’d dare label the situation there as quality entertainment. Unfortunately, living conditions on the island continue to deteriorate as the political situation grows increasingly muddled. Even more alarming is the frail state of Sri Lankan society. Make no mistake about it, the island nation is on the verge of a complete collapse.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s aircraft has landed in Singapore. After departing Colombo, Rajapaksa flew to the Maldives before winging his way east. There are reports surfacing that Jeddah will be his next destination. The purpose behind his tour could be to garner international support for an effort to remain in power. The president has not submitted a letter of resignation as promised, meaning he is still the rightful leader of Sri Lanka. Parliament is moving to strip him of his presidential powers though. The appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president only made the situation worse and incensed protesters. His office was taken over by protesters, leading to a number of clashes between security forces and civilians. A state of emergency was declared, as well as a curfew. Right now, Colombo has settled into an uneasy calm. Protesters have withdrawn from the presidential residence and Wickremesinghe’s office but remain in the president’s office.
Until the political situation stabilizes, negotiations between the government and the IMF are on hold. An agreement with the IMF is essential to lay the groundwork for an economic recovery. However, as it stands right now, there will be no progress made on this front until the vacant presidency seat is filled and calm returns to Sri Lanka. It could be a long time until that happens as the island nation remains in turmoil without an end in sight.
The inaugural ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise, (AUMX) is underway in Southeast Asian waters this week. The exercise marks the first time that the US and navies from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states have formally worked together. AUMX is taking place on a large area of sea, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Gulf of Tonkin, and south to Singapore. Parts of the exercise are taking place in the South China Sea and this fact could likely worsen the simmering tensions in the region. US and ASEAN officials have stressed that the exercise is not directed at China. No matter if this is the case or not, China will likely regard AUMX as a message being sent its way.
The timing and locations of the exercise has raised some eyebrows. Vietnam and China are currently locked in a standoff over repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels at the energy-rich Vanguard Bank. The Philippines has also been complaining about Chinese intimidation tactics in Manila’s claimed sea areas. More significant, perhaps, are reports that Cambodia has given China an exclusive access agreement to its naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand. If true, Chinese a naval facility could significantly affect the balance of power in the area. Thailand, Vietnam, and India are watching developments closely.
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.
Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, and the man who has become Pyongyang’s senior negotiator on denuclearization issues, is on his way to Washington DC today. He is expected to meet Friday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and possibly also hold a meeting with President Trump. Chol’s appearance in Washington is widely expected to mark the beginning of laying groundwork towards a second US-North Korean summit later in the year. Vietnam appears to be the most probable location for a summit. The United States has been cultivating closer ties with Hanoi over the last two years as the South China Sea has become an increasingly dangerous global flashpoint. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rumored to have arranged a visit to Vietnam for February, though it is unclear if his trip is connected to any potential meeting with US officials.
There has been little progress made on denuclearization since the Singapore summit was held last June. Lately, diplomatic activity has picked up considerably, especially in the wake of Kim’s trip to Beijing earlier this month. As was the case in 2018, Kim’s attitude towards denuclearization, and a summit with President Trump was relatively casual until a trip to China brought on a quick change in tune. It appears that a similar cycle is underway now. The US calls for progress on denuclearization, North Korea prevaricates, Kim is summoned to Beijing, and a week later Chol is on his way to Washington for negotiations.
This time around a second summit will not be enough for the US. Trump will be looking for concrete signs that North Korea is moving towards denuclearization, not more of the empty promises and assurances that Kim has been dispensing regularly since Singapore. The flow of recent events also brings to the forefront the current level of influence that China holds over Kim. It’s very possible that the meeting in Beijing earlier this month came about because of the current state of US-China relations. The Chinese may feel that its nudging of North Korea down the path of denuclearization could help lead to an improvement in relations with Washington. The ongoing US-China trade war, as well as the slowdown of China’s economy, are two factors that would certainly prompt Beijing to act now.
Kim Jong Un appears to be a man who wants to have his cake and eat it too. In a televised New Years address, the North Korean leader restated his commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a desire for further in-person talks with President Trump. He followed this up with a warning that his country will explore a ‘new path’ if US economic sanctions and other pressures in place against his government continue. He spoke of consequences if the United States “continues to break its promises and misjudges the patience of our people.”
Essentially, Kim wants all economic penalties lifted, and to be allowed to denuclearize at a pace amenable to him, not Washington.
Given the current state of affairs between the US and North Korea that simply is not going to happen. The summit held in Singapore between Trump and Kim last June ended without a timeline for denuclearization having been agreed upon. Negotiations on the matter were to take place between US and North Korean officials in the months following the summit. Unfortunately, these negotiations were hampered by North Korea’s insistence that denuclearization not begin until the economic sanctions were lifted. A significant meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials in November was abruptly cancelled at the last moment and not rescheduled. Following that, some in the Trump administration have begun to wonder just how sincere Pyongyang’s desire to part with its nuclear weapons really is.
In his speech, Kim spoke about the patience of the North Korean people being tested. However, in this delicate process, the patience of the US government counts for more. The words and actions of Kim Jong Un and his government since Singapore strongly suggest there will be no compromise in the future on North Korea’s nuclear weapons regardless of the fate of economic sanctions. President Trump extended to Kim a grace period for him to start mapping out a path towards the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. With no progress being made, or results in sight, that grace period could be coming to an end soon.