In a rambling press conference in London earlier this month during the Nato summit, US President Donald Trump made a long comment on the current status of US-North Korea talks. Mr Trump stressed that he had a “good relationship” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and pointed out that in the joint statement issued at their first ever summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, Mr Kim had committed to “denuclearisation”. Realistically assessing the current impasse in their negotiations, he said, “We’ll see what happens. It may work out, it may not”.
But Mr Trump went further and after extolling the might of US forces under his command, he threatened that if required the US “would use it (force)”. Mr Trump did not name North Korea, but the context made it clear that the warning was addressed to that country.
North Korea is not accustomed to digest any challenge from any quarter without a robust response. Immediately, North Korean Army chief Pak Jong Chon was quoted by the North Korean central news agency to say that Mr Kim was “displeased” with Mr Trump’s “undesirable remarks” and warned that North Korea and the US were “still technically at war and the state of truce can turn into an all out armed conflict any moment.”
Not known for any restraint in his speech or tweets, Mr Trump provoked North Korea when he said that Mr Kim “likes sending rockets — that’s why I call him a Rocket Man”. Mr Trump had insulted Mr Kim with this nickname way back in 2017 when the two mercurial leaders were engaged in an abusive verbal duel. The North Korean establishment, true to past form, reacted angrily and first vice foreign minister Chae Son Hu reportedly warned that Mr Trump’s remarks “show the senility of a dotard”. The resumption in the war of words underlines the troubling fact that since the Hanoi summit in February 2019, US-North Korea negotiations have stalled despite a brief meeting on June 30, 2019 when Mr Trump met Mr Kim at the DMZ dividing the Korean peninsula. The continuing distrust between the US and North Korea has cast its shadow on the growing detente between North and South Korea.
The crux of the differences between the two sides is around the sequence of steps and reciprocity when denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula takes place along with normalisation of relations between the US and North Korea. Hawks on the US side want North Korea to commit to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation first before offering an end to the armistice and a peace treaty. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been advocating a “Small Deal” where the process of denuclearisation as well as the peace process on the Korean peninsula would be broken down into a series of steps which would be reciprocally taken by the two sides.
Mr Trump’s implied threat of the possible option of use of force against North Korea would do little to bolster the confidence of Mr Kim in trusting the promises of the US and ever give up North Korea’s nuclear shield. The paramount objective of North Korea is the survival and continuation of the present regime and the capacity for nuclear retaliation is its only effective deterrent against any possible future US misadventure.
The single country that has some leverage over North Korea is China. But in the current state of increasing mistrust between the US and the Chinese establishments, China would be in no mood to pressure Mr Kim to be more accommodating to the US approach.
In April 2019, North Korea had cautioned that it would give the US till the end of 2019 to be more flexible in the negotiations. North Korean officials have accused the US of being “gangster-like” in its unilateral demands from North Korea. In an ominous statement, first vice minister of North Korea Ri Thae Song accused US policymakers of leveraging talks with Mr Kim for domestic political gain and warned that “it is entirely up to the US what Christmas gift it will select to get”.
The clouds are darkening again over the Korean peninsula. There is urgent need of intervention by the calm, sober and sagacious President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to activate all the back channels to bridge the deepening chasm between the US and the North Korean positions. Mr Kim does not have many options besides finding a modus vivendi with Mr Trump. A return to belligerence and nuclear or missile tests would only exacerbate its economic woes, invite stronger sanctions and deepen its global isolation.
Clearly, Mr Kim has resumed the game of brinkmanship at which North Korea is a master.