Friday’s second anniversary of the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un saw North Korea threaten to interfere in the US presidential election. The rebuff to Washington highlights not just that Trump’s signature foreign policy initiative lies in tatters, but that Pyongyang could yet engage in new provocations before November’s ballot.
To be sure, Thursday’s statement in the state-run North Korean Central News Agency was issued by a relatively low-level official in North Korea’s foreign ministry. But the comment is still notable as it appears to be the first time Pyongyang has threatened to influence or interfere in the US vote and will irk Trump.
This latest episode highlights how much the bilateral mood music has turned negative. It was predictable, even before the Singapore summit happened, that this would probably come to pass.
The reason was not just the Trump team’s lack of preparation for the event, but also the significant expectations gap, and ambiguity, that emerged. Such were the high expectations built up around the short, several hour session in Singapore, some even mooted it as a ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment.
Yet this was a highly misleading analogy.
Trump remains under political pressure in the United States having drawn a political ‘red line’ over Pyongyang having nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland.
Nixon’s visit to see Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972 came after years of contact building and diplomacy by the then-US president, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and others. By contrast, Trump’s decision to see Kim was spur-of-the-moment — striking given the stakes in play for a first meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean supreme leader.
These shortcomings were compounded by Trump’s characterisation of what occurred in Singapore. What was no more than a start to a potentially transformational, sustained strategic dialogue, saw the president, for instance, declaring that the “nuclear threat from North Korea is over” giving the impression that he had already completed the immensely complicated process of de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War-era frontier.
Today, as in June 2018, the central challenge over the process is differing US and Korean interpretations of what exactly would constitute “denuclearisation” on the peninsula. To Trump this appears to continue to mean unilateral disarmament.
Yet, for Kim it is much more about potentially lengthy negotiations in which Pyongyang should be treated as an equal to the United States, giving him further propaganda victories. In this context, it is little surprise Kim has remained wary about making concrete commitments on specific time frames, and want to win further economic and political concessions from Trump, before any reduction in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to full denuclearisation in its literal sense.
As in Singapore, the chief issue for the White House to resolve is what, if any, sequencing is possible to move the process forwards. After Vietnam, North Korea disputed Trump’s account that the talks collapsed because Kim asked for full sanctions rollback. Pyongyang claims that it asked for only partial sanctions relief, and that an offer was made to permanently halt nuclear and long-range rocket testing.
Whatever the truth of this, one reason why Pyongyang will not move far or fast in its positioning, at least this side of November’s presidential election is that, to date at least Kim, rather than Trump, has emerged as the bigger winner from the process. The North Korean leader has made few concrete concessions to the United States.
At the same time, the US president has called off joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces, and held out the prospect of an easing of sanctions on Pyongyang if it does “something meaningful” on denuclearisation. And this in a context too where there is also reported evidence that North Korea is continuing uranium enrichment and has stepped up missile production.
This underlines how much Kim has already received from Trump in exchange for the ambiguous pledges to “denuclearise”. On a personal level, for instance, the young head of state, for whom there have recently been rumours about his hold on power in Pyongyang, has assumed significantly higher political importance on the international stage. Xi Jinping has now invited Kim for multiple trips to Beijing in 2018 and 2019, his first foreign tours since he assumed power in 2010, and he has also visited Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Turnaround in tensions
The contrast between this feting of Kim, and the situation in 2017 when the Trump team was debating a pre-emptive attack on North Korea is striking. Yet, the remarkable turnaround in tensions on the peninsula since then is very fragile again with potential key downside risks in play that could re-escalate tensions.
In particular, Trump remains under political pressure in the United States having drawn a political ‘red line’ over Pyongyang having nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland. And here he is well aware that missile tests have shown Kim is close to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile with this long-range capability.
Taken together, North Korea therefore now has more downside risk than upside opportunity for Trump in 2020. Having hoped two years ago that North Korea could be the highlight of his first term foreign policy, it would be ironic, indeed, if this issue were to come back to undermine him in his re-election campaign.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.