Saturday 7 July, 2018 Update: US-North Korea Relations Back to Square One?

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an admirable effort to paint his two days of discussions with North Korean representatives in Pyongyang in the best light possible. He described the talks as ‘productive,’ and stated that progress was made on nearly all of the ‘central issues.’ The North Korean government’s take on the talks was strikingly different. Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, accused the United States of  presenting a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” that was “deeply regrettable.”

To make a long story short, after Pompeo’s visit, it appears US-North Korean relations may be drifting back to Square One with regards to North Korea denuclearizing.

If this turns out to be the case, the Trump administration is prepared for the contingency. From the moment Kim Jong Un made the first move towards improving relations with South Korea, and eventually the United States, the Trump administration adopted a hope-for-the-best-but-prepare-for-the-worst disposition. The US had little to lose by initiating the talks with North Korea which led to Kim Jong Un and President Trump meeting in Singapore last month. In the buildup to Singapore, the North’s comments and actions nearly derailed the summit. This was a red flag for the US regarding North Korea’s overall agenda, and intentions.

The disappointing outcome of Pompeo’s latest visit to Pyongyang places considerably more pressure on Pyongyang than on Washington. The North’s next move will be scrutinized closely. If it turns out that Kim has not been sincere about his desire to denuclearize, the Trump administration’s revised approach will become more inflexible. There’s little chance of the US relenting on its wish to see North Korea become nuclear-free. Therefore, the only real path for the US will be to tighten the screws on Pyongyang. Stiffer economic sanctions, and ramp up international pressure on North Korea. If that fails to motivate North Korea, other measures, including the use of force to force Kim’s to comply with denuclearization must be considered.

The View From Singapore

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‘Too big to fail’ is a phrase which gained mainstream popularity during the late 2000s financial crisis. It was used to describe a business that had become so large that should it fail, the resulting ripple effect would be disastrous to the economy. In the past two months, the phrase has been batted around by many of my peers, politicians, the talking heads on the cable news channels, and political scientists around the world. The Singapore summit between President Trump, and Kim Jong Un  has been labeled, fairly or not, ‘too big to fail.’ There is some truth to the label for the summit, however, not in the manner that many people would think.

To borrow another phrase, the outlook of most observers, and journalists can best be described as ‘too ignorant to comprehend.’ It is generally understood that the stakes are incredibly high for the summit scheduled to begin here in less than twenty-four hours. Identifying just what those stakes include is where the trouble begins. Journalists, as well as nearly everyone else, continually overlook the reality that unless an agreement is reached on eventual North Korean denuclearization, the US-North Korea standoff is likely to escalate. The ripple effect of a failed summit could very well lead to US military action to neutralize the North’s nuclear weapons in coming months.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a clear and present danger to the United States. The singular purpose of this summit, contrary to what is said in front of the cameras, has always been removing nuclear weapons from Pyongyang’s control. If it turns out to be impossible to do through diplomacy, negotiation, and economic incentive, the US has to consider a kinetic alternative.

To be sure, nobody wants that to happen. Unfortunately, the desires of peaceful people around the world pale in comparison to the crucial interests, and security concerns of sovereign nation states.

President Trump has said that the Singapore meeting will be a one-shot deal for North Korea. Let’s hope Kim Jong Un will understand this and negotiate in good faith.

Thirty-six hours from now we will have a fairly good take on whether or not the summit was successful. In short, a successful summit will see concrete steps towards denuclearization laid down. An unsuccessful meeting places all parties back at square one with little incentive to try the negotiation route again.

Saturday 2 June, 2018 Brief Update: US-North Korea Summit Back On

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The summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un is on once again. Trump informed reporters of the reversal this afternoon at the White House. The date and location will remain unchanged: 12 June, 2018 in Singapore. Last week the president announced the cancelation of the highly anticipated summit after a number of openly hostile statements were made by North Korean government officials. Trump also cited the failure of Pyongyang to send a delegation to meet with US officials in Singapore to discuss logistical issues, and other pre-summit items as a reason for pulling the plug on the summit.

Almost immediately, a flurry of diplomatic activity broke out from Seoul to Washington. Diplomats, and leaders from around the world moved with startling speed to salvage the summit if at all possible. Not surprisingly, South Korea spearheaded the efforts. A planned meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un which had been cancelled previously, was held at the DMZ. China was also active, pressuring Pyongyang behind the scenes for a solution that would make the summit a reality. This week, the diplomatic focus shifted to the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with a North Korean delegation in New York City on Thursday. This morning a personal letter from Kim was delivered to the White House and a few hours later, President Trump informed the world that the summit is back on.

If the summit plans remain unchanged from this point on, it will be time to start talking about what the chances are for a US-North Korea deal to be struck, and what a possible deal could look like.

I will post about those subjects next week. Enjoy the weekend!

Thursday 24 May, 2018 Update: Trump Cancels US-North Korea Summit Meeting

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The much-anticipated summit meeting scheduled for mid-June between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore has been cancelled. The decision was made by President Trump following recent comments and actions by North Korea indicating that perhaps the North was not turning over a new leaf as many were hoping. Last week Pyongyang canceled scheduled talks with South Korea over joint US-South Korean military exercises going on in the South. Earlier this week, the first cracks became apparent. On Monday, North Korea made comments suggesting a nuclear showdown could occur if talks between the US and North Korea fail.  Twenty-four hours later, Trump indicated there was a chance the planned summit might not take place at the planned time and place. Unknown to many outsiders, and journalists at the time, the president was making reference to North Korea’s failure to attend recent meetings in Singapore to work out planning for the summit. Then came Thursday’s cancellation with Trump citing North Korea’s ‘tremendous anger and open hostility’

What happens next is the great unknown. The cancellation took South Korea by complete surprise. South Korean President Moon Jae-in expended a lion’s share of political capital to make the US-North Korean summit a reality. In politics, of course, perception matters more than reality. Moon has to know his image will take a big hit as the fallout from the cancelled summit settles. Upon learning of Trump’s decision to call the meeting off, the South Korean government expressed complete surprise. Moon called an emergency meeting of his close advisers, and national security team to try and make sense of the US move.

The South Koreans are on the sidelines for the time being, however. The next step in this unfolding drama will depend on Pyongyang and how Kim chooses to respond.

Wednesday 16 May, 2018 Update: North Korea Threatens to Back Out of June Summit

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With less than thirty days remaining until the US-North Korea summit is scheduled to take place in Singapore, the first signs of trouble have appeared. North Korea’s statement expressing ‘disappointment’ with National Security Adviser John Bolton’s remarks over the weekend suggesting that North Korea’s potential denuclearization could follow the ‘Libya Model.’ Considering that Muammar Gaddafi’s gave up his nation’s nuclear program only to be killed by Western-backed rebels a few years later, it is easy to see why the North Koreans are a little disturbed by Bolton’s words. It is no secret that the North has long been wary of Bolton and his hawkish views. Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan. even admitted in the statement that his country finds Bolton ‘repugnant.’

Frustration with Bolton is not the only matter irritating North Korea. Max Thunder, a joint ROKAF-USAF military exercise currently underway have apparently displeased Pyongyang enough for it to cancel high-level talks with South Korea that had been scheduled for today. KCIA, North Korea’s state-run media outlet has stated the exercise could prevent the 12 June summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un from taking place.

Washington is publicly projecting great confidence that the summit will take place. Behind the scenes, though, questions about North Korea’s candor regarding talks with the United States, and the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Tuesday’s statements and actions suggest Pyongyang might be embracing tactics of the past to project its unwillingness to discuss at length the subject of denuclearization with Trump at the summit. Bolton’s remarks likely appear to be a suitable justification for North Korea to try and shift the focus of the summit away from its nuclear weapons and the future of the program.