In the morning of 24th May 2018, US President Trump cancelled the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This was particularly surprising given how this could have been the Trump administration’s greatest foreign policy achievement.
It would not be surprising if this would be touted as a wrong move by the Trump administration.
I disagree. This move, if leveraged well by Washington, could be key in bringing about a successful summit and an eventual denuclearisation deal.
The entire history of US-North Korea diplomacy can be characterised as US offering unreciprocated incentives to a scheming North Korea that only appears interested in denuclearisation in order to extract benefits that sustain its authoritarian regime. On a similar but distinct note, Victor Cha described negotiating with North Korea as “all about contradictions” and “what can be important one day can become unimportant the next”.
Three examples should suffice.
Firstly, the 1994 Agreed Framework that would have exchanged two light water reactors and heavy oil (among other concessions) for a freeze on and eventual dismantling of the North Korean nuclear programme was eventually scrapped after Pyongyang was found to have secretly pursued a uranium enrichment project, violating the agreement. Yet North Korea had already benefited from the shipments provided by the US (among others, especially its allies South Korea and Japan)
Thirdly, towards the end of the Six-Party Talks led by China to promote denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula, the US had unfroze North Korean-linked bank accounts and provided fuel aids (among other things) as a result of North Korean concessions. For example, Pyongyang had begun dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear plant and allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify its denuclearisation process. However, Pyongyang would eventually expel these inspectors and restore the Yongbyon nuclear plant.
Under all previous US administrations, such actions by North Korea to leave the negotiating table served only to entice US and its allies to offer more reassurances, economic aid, policy concessions and other benefits to the former, in a bid to encourage its return to negotiations. While it is indubitable that these concessions by the international community benefited the North Korean regime (sustained it for a longer time), their effectiveness in achieving denuclearisation is dubious — North Korea’s nuclear program never really stopped advancing. If there is one constant trait in North Korean foreign policy, it is one of rational inconsistency between its actions and its promises. Seemingly irrational diplomatic flip-flops served only to further its interests.
Therefore, it was not surprising when North Korea started signalling that the planned summit might not go on, given that it is in line with its policy of inconsistency. For example, on 15th May 2018, North Korea cancelled its planned follow-up summit with South Korea by taking issue with the annual military drills between US and South Korea. This happened despite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly understanding the “the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue“. Such actions by North Korea sends a strong message that the new regime under Kim Jong-un would act the same as its previous regimes. Hence, North Korean threats of cancelling the planned Singapore summit could well have been a ploy to extract greater economic benefits and policy concessions from the US. Furthermore, if this is true, it is unlikely that the planned summit would generate any meaningful denuclearisation deal.
Interestingly, there appears to be an uncanny resemblance between Trump’s decision to cancel the planned Singapore summit and North Korea’s traditional policy of inconsistency. If the Singapore summit was going to be leveraged by North Korea to further extract greater policy concessions from the US, the Trump administration would have successfully prevented North Korea’s ploy from succeeding. After all, if the summit was going to be cancelled by North Korea anyway, by cancelling it first, US scores a political victory in this decades-old political tug-of-war.
Further, by cancelling the summit, US sends a powerful message to North Korea: “the current administration is different from previous administrations and it will not succumb to North Korean diplomatic maneuvers”.
Perhaps most importantly, by cancelling the high-profile summit, the Trump administration is essentially practicing the traditional North Korean policy of rational inconsistency against the rogue state itself. If one would agree that the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure against North Korea is responsible for bringing it to the negotiation table in 2018, North Korea must be desperate for a relaxation of international sanctions. In such a situation, by showing that the Trump administration is willing to give up what would have been its greatest foreign policy achievement, US signals North Korea that the traditional North Korean diplomatic play script of inconsistency will no longer work. A desperate Kim Jong-un may eventually have no choice but to pursue negotiations on Washington’s terms. Perhaps for the first time in history, North Korea would have to dangle carrots to the US to entice a return to negotiations.
Granted, depending on how subsequent events play out, North Korea may eventually have the last laugh. I think this is most likely if the Trump administration fails to secure any significant breakthrough in North Korean denuclearisation by 2020 (the last year of the Trump presidency, where he will then need to be re-elected). However, to reach this stage, the North Korean regime must have enough resources to sustain its authoritarian coalition amidst Washington’s maximum pressure campaign. Assuming the existing international sanctions against North Korea does not weaken, it appears more likely that Trump would be able to make the deal he wants.
Potentially ingenious, isn’t it?
Edit (25 May 2018): About 8 hours after the publishing of this post and 12 hours after Trump’s announcement of the summit’s cancellation, North Korea indicated that it is willing to negotiate a “Trump formula” to resolve any disagreements between Pyongyang and Washington.
This seems to support the argument above that the cancellation of the summit hurts North Korean interests much more than it does to the US. This may indicate that the North Korean regime may not have enough resources to maintain the support of its coalition (especially the military). The Trump administration appears to have gained the upperhand in the negotiation — even before it began. I hope only for this advantage to be well-leveraged by the US in successfully achieving a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation deal for the Korean peninsula.