By Paul Liem | January 16, 2020
The palpable fear in Washington that North Korea—or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—would test an ICBM as a “Christmas gift” to the Trump administration for refusing to negotiate the lifting of sanctions has now been replaced with an anxiety that such a test could occur at any time. In a year-end meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Chairman Kim announced that the country would no longer be bound to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing, and that the “world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.”
Rather than addressing this new development head on, President Trump chose to send Chairman Kim a “happy birthday” greeting through diplomatic channels. On January 11, 2020, Kim Kye Gwan, Advisor to the DPRK Foreign Ministry (FM) confirmed receipt, albeit not on the terms Trump might have hoped: “Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has a good personal feeling about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal.’ The Chairman of the State Affairs Commission [Kim Jong Un] would not discuss the state affairs on the basis of such personal feelings, as he represents our state and its interests.”
By “state and its interests,” advisor Kim Kye Gwan was referring to the priorities established by Chairman Kim Jong Un in his address to the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK, December 28 to December 31, 2019. Unlike the celebratory tone of Chairman Kim’s past New Year’s speeches, he chose to deliver a set of marching orders to the core leadership of the WPK, aimed at launching a “frontal breakthrough as required by the present situation and the developing revolution,” in reference to the breakdown of diplomacy between the United States and DPRK, beginning with the collapse of the Hanoi Summit of February 27 and 28, 2019.
To wit, the aim of the Hanoi Summit meeting was to arrive at concrete steps towards normalizing relations between the United States and the DPRK and to achieve the denuclearization of the “Korean peninsula,” as agreed at the June 12, 2018 US-DPRK Singapore summit. In Hanoi, the DPRK offered to permanently dismantle all plutonium and uranium production facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, its key nuclear research facility and supplier of weapons grade plutonium, and to commit to a permanent halt to nuclear and long-range rocket testing, in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions—those “related to people’s livelihoods and unrelated to military sanctions,” as DPRK Foreign Minister, Ri Yong Ho, specified. President Trump, however, reverted to the demands of his predecessors, insisting on complete and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear weapons systems, historically a non-starter for the DPRK. He went further to insist on dismantlement of biological and chemical, weapons systems, demands not previously discussed. To exact these concessions President Trump doubled down on his “maximum pressure” policy in the form of draconian sanctions and walked away before the scheduled end of the summit. “Sometimes you have to walk … and this was just one of those times,” he said. A couple months later, the DPRK gave the United States a year-end deadline, by which time the Trump administration was to have returned to the table, willing to adopt a step-by-step approach to addressing the sanctions/denuclearization issues. The threat of a “Christmas gift” emerged as the “or else” component of the DPRK’s ultimatum.
In his address to the WPK leadership, Chairman Kim summarized the standoff between the DPRK and the United States as that “between self-reliance and sanctions.” In the face of “sanctions by the hostile forces in the future,” the DPRK, he concluded, would have to accept as “a fait accompli” that U.S. hostility would not relent in the future, and proceed to “strengthen the internal power from all aspects,” emphasizing that “the key front in the offensive for frontal breakthrough is the economic front.”
In the matter of denuclearization, Chairman Kim declared, “if the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built.”
While nothing in Chairman Kim’s end-of-the-year remarks suggests that North Korea has abandoned the ideal of denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula, as envisioned in the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration signed by the leaders of North and South Korea, what is plain is that a unilateral dismantlement of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons systems in exchange for the promise of economic benefits is now off the table. What remains to be seen is how the DPRK will develop its weapons systems, and under what circumstances they might be deployed. In this regard, Chairman Kim clarified that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.”
The Birthday Missive
The only diplomatic interaction between Chairman Kim and President Trump in the interval since the WPK plenary session has been the latter’s birthday greeting to the former and the publication by the Korean Central News Agency’s (KCNA) of Kim Kye Gwan’s reply to it. Kim Kye Gwan’s reply is instructive in that it clarifies the DPRK’s position on the personal relationship between Kim and Trump; the lessons drawn from the Hanoi Summit; the precondition required for the DPRK to meet again with the United States; and the attitude of the DPRK towards efforts by the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, to act as an intermediary between the United States and the DPRK. Kim Kye Gwan’s remarks, taken one by one below, also suggest how hostility between the United States and the DPRK might deescalate.
State-to-state relations between the United States and the DPRK take precedence over the personal relationship between Kim and Trump. “What is clear is that we will never lose our time again, being taken in by the U.S. trick as in the past on the basis of such personal feelings, as he (Chairman Kim) represents our state and its interests,” Kim Kye Kwan stated.
Yet even as the relationship between Kim and Trump is subordinate to the affairs of
state, it might still play a positive role in moderating hostilities between the United
States and the DPRK, averting a return to the fiery verbal exchanges of 2017.
Regarding the Hanoi Summit, “There will never be such negotiations as that in Vietnam, in which we proposed exchanging a core nuclear facility of the country for the lift of some UN sanctions in a bid to lessen the sufferings of the peaceable people even a bit,” Kim Kye Kwan said. “There is no need for us to be present in such talks, in which there is only unilateral pressure, and we have no desire to barter something for other thing at the talks like traders,” he continued.
That said, acknowledgement by the U.S. State Department that it moved the goal
posts on the DPRK at Hanoi by adding disarmament demands not previously
discussed, that it misrepresented the DPRK’s bargaining position by claiming it wanted
“all” sanctions lifted in exchange for dismantlement of the nuclear production facilities
at Yongbyon, and that it arbitrarily put pressure on the DPRK to unilaterally disarm
before receiving any relief from sanctions would help restore the credibility of the
United States as a reliable negotiating partner.
The DPRK will not make compromises in future dialogue with the United States. “It can be said that the reopening of dialogue between the DPRK and the U.S. may be possible only under the condition of the latter’s absolute agreement on the issues raised by the former, but we know well that the U.S. is neither ready nor able to do so,” Kim Kye Kwan clarified.
Although “absolute agreement” to DPRK conditions by the United States is unlikely, a decision by the United States to support, or not veto, a prospective UN Security
Council resolution by China and Russia to ease sanctions against the DPRK and cancellation of its upcoming war exercises with the ROK might encourage Pyongyang to moderate its deployment of the strategic weapons it has pledged to unveil and refrain from testing ICBMs and nukes.
The ROK is not in a position to influence US-DPRK relations. Kim Kye Kwan derided South Korean diplomats for having “lingering hope for playing the role of ‘mediator’ in the DPRK-U.S. relations.”
Should South Korea display agency in implementing its agreements with the North
regarding the peaceful development of inter-Korea affairs, rather than siding with U.S.-
led sanctions, its diplomats would likely be accorded respect by their northern
counterparts, enabling South Korea to assert itself in the role of independent mediator,
in de-escalating hostilities between the US and DPRK..
We might be reminded that the Chinese word for “crisis” is also the word for “opportunity.” The opportunity described in each of the DPRK foreign minister’s key points above is just as present as the crisis it presupposes. However, there are no signs on the horizon that the United States will pull back from its policy of maximum pressure or that the ROK is prepared to face the consequences of asserting independence from U.S. policy. Regrettably, at the start of the New Year, the DPRK, having no hope for relief from sanctions or hostility from the United States, is steeling itself to launch a “frontal breakthrough” to overcome barriers to its social development posed by sanctions and external threats to its sovereignty, by virtue of its own resources, nuclear deterrent, and will. To U.S. maximum pressure, the DPRK has issued a maxiumum response.
Paul Liem is the Chair of the Korea Policy Institute Board of Directors.