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The Limits to North Korea’s Patience

People watch a TV live broadcast about top leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong Un meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27, 2019. (Xinhua/Wu Xiaochu)

By Paul Liem | March 4, 2019

Rarely, if ever, has the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) succeeded in commandeering the narrative when it comes to past setbacks in its negotiations with the United States.  Washington, with China and Russia on occasion weighing in, has typically had the final word.  But after the Hanoi Summit last week, that has all changed.

As expected, in Hanoi, the United States called a press conference to make its case to the “global community” that the talks had stalled due to unreasonable demands by the DPRK. But in an unprecedented move for North Korean diplomats, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choi Son Hui went directly to the international press to share their views, and likely the views of Chairman Kim Jong Un, on where the talks went awry, challenging the U.S. team to account for its omissions.

Last Thursday, President Trump told the press that Chairman Kim wanted the United States to lift sanctions “in their entirety” in exchange for partial denuclearization:

They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that…. I mean, they wanted sanctions lifted but they weren’t willing to do an area that we wanted. They were willing to give us areas but not the ones we wanted.

Shortly after midnight, 3/1/2019, Foreign Minister Ri told the press:

We aren’t asking for all the sanctions to be lifted, but only some of them. We’re asking for relief from five of the UN Security Council’s 11 sanctions resolutions, the ones adopted between 2016 and 2017, and in particular the aspects of those sanctions that interfere with the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood.

Ri went on to explain in detail what the D.P.R.K. was offering in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions, and why:

Our proposal was that, if the US lifts some of the UN sanctions, or in other words those aspects of the sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood, we will completely and permanently dismantle the production facilities of all nuclear materials, including plutonium and uranium, in the Yongbyon complex, through a joint project by technicians from our two countries, in the presence of American experts. Even though the security guarantee is more important to us, as we take denuclearization measures, we understood that it could be more difficult for the United States to take measures in the military field. That is why we proposed the removal of partial sanctions, as corresponding measures. Our proposal was that, if the US lifts some of the UN sanctions, or in other words those aspects of the sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood, we will completely and permanently dismantle the production facilities of all nuclear materials, including plutonium and uranium, in the Yongbyon complex, through a joint project by technicians from our two countries, in the presence of American experts.

Ri also stated that the DPRK would commit in writing to a “permanent halt to nuclear testing and long-range rocket testing.”  Emphasizing North Korea’s insistence on a measure-for-measure process, Ri reasoned, “If we go through this level of trust building measures then we’ll be able to accelerate the process of denuclearization.”  The talks foundered, he pointed out, when “the U.S. insisted we should take one more step besides the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon areas.”  “It became crystal clear that the U.S. was not able to accept our proposal,” he stated.

Madame Choi underscored Ri’s frustration.  UPI reported that “she accused the Trump administration of having moved the goal posts, saying it initially talked about dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex and is now taking issue with other sites as well.”  Madame Choi also stated that Chairman Kim “may have lost the will to negotiate” and that Trump and the United States were “missing an opportunity that comes once in a thousand years” and claimed “our Chairman had a difficult time understanding the U.S. system of measuring,” according to CNN.

Ri and Choi’s press conference had the effect of holding the Trump administration accountable to a set of facts that President Trump and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had omitted from their account of the latest U.S.-DPRK summit.  A senior U.S. official clarified the administration’s account to the media on condition that he remain unnamed, according to Eric Talmadge, AP Bureau Chief in Pyongyang.

Although the official stated that the North Koreans “basically asked for the lifting of all sanctions,” he conceded that “the North’s demand was only for Washington to back the lifting of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed since March 2016 and didn’t include the other resolutions going back a decade more. What Pyongyang was seeking, he said, was the lifting of sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood – as Ri had claimed,” Talmadge reported.

Lifting the post 2016 sanctions would be worth billions of dollars which the North could use to fund their nuclear and missile programs, the official explained.  “So, it was definitely a robust demand.  But it wasn’t, as Trump claimed, all the sanctions.  It also didn’t come as a surprise.  He said the North had been pushing that demand for weeks in lower-level talks,” according to Talmadge.

Up until the last-minute cancellation of the closing ceremony scheduled for last Thursday, during which President Trump and Chairman Kim were expected to sign a joint statement, hopes were running high in South Korea and the Korean diaspora that the two leaders would declare an end to the Korean War and a pathway to denuclearization.  Why this did not occur can be understood from the two press conferences and statements by U.S. officials responding to the DPRK’s account.

Ri explains that they proposed a partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for shuttering the Yongbyon nuclear facilities because they understood that that security guarantees would be more difficult for the United States to offer.  But the closure of Yongbyon was not sufficient for the U.S. team.  Statements by Trump, Pompeo, and a senior State Department official indicate that the U.S. team sought a comprehensive disarmament agreement including closure of a “second uranium enrichment” and furthermore, a freeze on production of any “weapons of mass destruction.”

In reply to questions from the New York Times reporter, David Sanger, President Trump revealed that the United States demanded that a “second uranium enrichment plant” be closed.  “But remember, too, even the Yongbyon facility and all of its scope — which is important, for sure — still leaves missiles, still leaves warheads and weapons systems,” Pompeo added.  A senior state department official put it this way, “the dilemma that we were confronted with is that the North Koreans at this point are unwilling to impose a complete freeze on their weapons of mass destruction programs,” the Hankyoreh reported. The official continued, “So to give many, many billions of dollars in sanctions relief would in effect put us in a position of subsidizing the ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea,” the report continued.

In retrospect, the DPRK team was prepared to forgo a peace declaration in favor of offering the closure of Yongbyon in exchange for a partial, albeit “robust,” lifting of sanctions, as a trust-building measure.  The U.S. team upped the ante to a freeze on the DPRK’s production of “weapons of mass destruction.” For a day and a half of talks, this goal was so farfetched that one has to wonder whether the Trump entourage arrived in Hanoi with any intention to seal a deal or with the goal of simply pushing back on criticism at home that President Trump had been “duped” by Chairman Kim at the first summit, by proving to his detractors that he could “walk.”  After all, the North Korean counterpoint to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” regime of sanctions is that it is now focusing on the mass production of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, asserting that they have no need for further testing.  Why would they give them up before sanctions are likewise given up, and before a peace regime is in place, let alone freeze production of weapons programs not yet on the table?

“When we saw the table and John Bolton sitting at the table and Stephen Biegun sitting behind when he had done all this work to do all this preparation, it just seemed for us, ‘Oh my gosh, something fishy is going on here,’” exclaimed Christine Ahn, founder of Women Cross DMZ, Newsweek reported.  Indeed, a “former South Korean Unification Minister, Jeong Se-hyun, attributed the failure to a last-minute stipulation proposed by Bolton that would mandate North Korea not only report on its nuclear weapons but its chemical and biological stockpiles too,” the report also said.

Ultimately, at the Hanoi Summit, the parties came to an impasse, they walked away from the table on cordial terms with a clearer view of the distance between their positions, they shared their separate accounts of the talks with the international press, and they declared their intentions to return.  But momentum towards implementing the pledges of the Singapore Summit last June has been lost, and reconnecting will be challenging.

Early last September, South Korean President Moon Jae-in helped lay the groundwork for the Hanoi Summit when he obtained an agreement with Chairman Kim in Pyongyang, in which “The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement.”  In the triangulated relationship between the two Koreas and the United States, how will President Moon intercede on behalf of U.S. proposals now demanding full disarmament of not just nuclear weapons programs, but also non-nuclear programs, before any sanctions are lifted?

At Stanford University in January, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, shared a vision with the audience of a “perfect outcome moment where the last nuclear weapon leaves North Korea, the sanctions are lifted, the flag goes up in the embassy and the (peace) treaty is signed in the same hour.”  He won the trust of his counterparts in Pyongyang with his positive outlook.  But after being sidelined by his own team in Hanoi, will Biegun continue to have the same influence in Pyongyang?

Koreans in both Koreas and in the diaspora have long awaited peace on the Korean peninsula, but is U.S. society ready for a major culture shift in policy towards the DPRK?  Is President Trump capable of preparing the American public to lay aside its reservations and make peace with the DPRK, a U.S. nemesis for the past 70 years?

As for the DPRK, in his 2019 New Year’s address, Chairman Kim indicated his desire to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with the United States but cautioned that he would seek other options as needed:

I am ready to meet the US president again anytime, and will make efforts to obtain without fail results which can be welcomed by the international community. But if the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world, and out of miscalculation of our people’s patience, it attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.

What are the limits to North Korea’s “patience,” and what might be the “new way” forward for North Korea at this point? These are only a few of the daunting challenges and questions generated by the ambivalent outcome of the Hanoi Summit.

Paul Liem is chair of the Korea Policy Institute Board of Directors.


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