A wise man once said, “If you want to know where a man is going; you need to understand where he’s coming from”. This phrase aptly sums up the Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam that wrapped up before time due to strong disagreements over a ‘deal’. The crux of the matter here was expectations. In specific terms we can say that Chairman Kim was expecting all sanctions post 2016 except armaments to be lifted while only agreeing to part closure of the Yongbyon Nuclear facility which basically means that the Trump administration would be subsidizing any future nuclear and missile testing while removing deterrence. North Korea also disagreed to a complete freeze on their WMD programs.
Most importantly, the elephant in the room “denuclearization and its definition” still remains unsolved. North Korea suggests that since the sanctions came into being on account of testing, a freeze on testing from their end should automatically indicate their cessation. So, what happens to the existing nuclear weapons and multiple-range missiles? What happens to any other nuclear and missile testing facilities apart from the “part of Yongbyon” that North Korea has agreed to shut down. Well, the correct answer is nobody knows!
This stalemate is hardly surprising. In our comprehensive book on the Korean Peninsula; we have emphatically stated that it is very important to understand North Korea’s Juche ideology which is a manipulated version of Neo-Confucianism and the importance of nuclear weapons for the Kim Dynasty before any semblance of a deal can even be drafted. For America, the usual rulebook of deal making will be inadequate when dealing with North Korea which is completely ideologically driven and has a very clear vision of its place in the world. Many experts have made the fatal mistake of comparing North Korea with Iran or Pakistan in terms of their nuclear bluff and alliances. While it is true that North Korea has alliances with some rather shady countries and groups; its idea of a nation-state and the strong ambition to be taken seriously with respect leans more towards a Soviet mindset than any other. North Korea is also not a suicidal country and while its actions may seem rash, it is actually playing the game of chaos which President Trump has tried to play in kind using the madman playbook.
So, what comes next? Have we completely lost the chance to civilize North Korea? The author thinks this is just the beginning. If America is serious about a deal, it will now have clearly understood that the red lines that North Korea was drawing since Day 1 which it thought was mere bluff and bluster was true. While the Trump administration always stressed on North Korea’s denuclearization, the Kim administration had always said it was open to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” which is a very different context and perhaps impossible. During our research for the book, it was amply evident that North Korea’s nuclear program for civilian use and military use cannot be de-hyphenated. The program is bigger than a source of pride or a bargaining chip for the Kim Dynasty. It is bigger than a tool to control its generals and the poor civilian population.
Does North Korea want to open up to foreign investment? Most certainly. Chairman Kim is a highly ambitious, narcissist who has big plans for himself. These plans include not kowtowing to China. North Korea and China have a very complicated relationship. We must not forget that even though Chairman Kim assumed leadership before Xi, they had their first meeting only after a date had been finalized for the first ever meeting between an American President and a North Korean leader. Xi has consistently refused to address Kim as an equal and snubbed him multiple times. Chairman Kim is also aware that Mao had ditched his grandfather for the Americans at the time he needed his assistance the most. Then, there’s also China’s recent appropriation of Goryeo history from North and South Korea which is of great significance to the Korean people. These are simple facts China simply can’t wish away!
China has attempted to use its historical relationship with North Korea as leverage on the Korean Peninsula as a tool in the ongoing US-China trade war. North Korea has allowed this to happen as it is able to punch above its weight in talks with America. March 1 was the initial deadline of the talks between US-China which has now been postponed. With the Vietnam summit not achieving any results, Trump will go after the Chinese hard which actually works in North Korea’s advantage. It is also interesting to note that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Vietnam ahead of the Hanoi summit and stated “United States has asked Moscow’s advice in dealing with North Korea and believes America must offer Pyongyang security guarantees for any disarmament to be successful”.
The Trump administration has been screaming from the rooftops about its achievements in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear threat. In light of the US global withdrawal and its greater empowerment of regional allies in Cold War 2.0, it should consider a paradigm shift in what it considers North Korea’s role in Asia. North Korea’s extensive rare earth elements and minerals resources and their necessity in 5G where the Trump administration is ensuring Huawei is unable to dominate should ensure this. USA should start leveraging North Korea’s complicated relationship with China for its gains. Will North Korea’s elimination of nuclear or missile threat to US alone be considered a win for the Trump administration? Will US access to these valuable elements in North Korea be enough for Trump? It is pertinent to note that China currently holds the monopoly in REE elements and is extremely choosy about granting access to other countries in the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution. United States will have to expand its definition of denuclearization if it expects North Korea to walk the talk. The benefits accrued thence will be many provided it is willing to adopt a more accommodating approach in the changing global order. After all, if it can lift an arms embargo on Vietnam, the country with whom it fought one of its longest unsuccessful wars, it should be able to make common ground with North Korea. While President Trump left Hanoi immediately yesterday, Kim has stayed back on a state visit to Vietnam. It is noteworthy that the Vietnamese Government allowed the commemoration of the bloody Sino-Vietnamese War on 17th February in the media for the first time in 2019 breaking decades of policy. It is also noteworthy that an average Vietnamese when thinking of war thinks not of America but China. Diplomacy is all about optics. The commemoration; mere days before the important Trump-Kim Summit followed by Chairman Kim’s official visit gives a very clear message about his priorities and ambition which needs to be capitalized.