2019, in its first two months alone has witnessed monumental occurrences and has been subject to political exigencies that have tested the mettle of diplomats and negotiators across the globe. While unrelenting trade wars, the intransigence of BREXIT negotiators, and the Delphic Prince of Saudi Arabia have come close to it, they fail make the cut for the most delicately balanced issue of the 21st century. This honorific title has undoubtedly been reserved for the nuclear crisis between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
An article I wrote previously discussing the credibility of United States’ ‘America First’ policy, and the ensuing diplomatic fudge in context of the first summit, makes a suitable prelude to the second summit scheduled for 27-28 February 2019, in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital (Read it here). While the world did not come to the brink of a nuclear war at the end of the first summit, looming uncertainty and mistrust in the system, aided by suspicions of secret nuclear weapons program, have contributed to an atmosphere of equivocality before the upcoming summit. A year of uncertainty, hollow promises, and soaring statements, have given us the second US-DPRK summit. However, when irresolution and doubt hang on the brink of possible escalations due to the erraticism of leaders, one needs to analyze the prospects of successes, as well as the perils predicted, equally.
As a cautionary note, however, I would suggest that we take out our personal copies of Sweden’s ‘If Crisis or War Comes’ brochure, while we anxiously await the end of February. So here are the prospects and premonitions, as Donald Trump, and Kim Jong Un sit down to meet in Hanoi.
• The Singapore summit in 2018 represented an unprecedented breakthrough in dealings between the United States and North Korea, considerably improving the relations between President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. The two moved from formulating tropes about each other on social media, to framing joint statements on a negotiating table. A historical rivalry lasting over half a century culminated into promises of a peace process. Summit diplomacy does deserve its fair share of credit for historical advancements towards the stabilization of international relations, but the Trump-Kim summit presented a unique challenge – as a conflict intractability coupled with the intransigence of leaders guiding the process. Not to forget, personalities have a serious role to play in determining outcomes in geopolitics and the conflux of these, thankfully, indicates prospects of stabilization rather than torrential waters.
• The very discussion of a second summit is a symbol of success. Especially considering the factors which shaped the dynamism of 2018. The summit – now deemed historical – wouldn’t have been a part of history based on how close it came to cancellation, barely months before it was due to take place. Unlike 2018, articulations and exchanges of hostilities, and ill-will do not seem to be the forerunning themes of the February 2019 summit. Instead, this summit represents the capacity of the two leaders to engage in a sustained dialogue crucial for any lasting peace deal. The summit is thus a beacon of hope that Trump doesn’t represent the end of American diplomacy with ‘former rouge states,’ or that America’s promises are on the wane. The very discourse surrounding the nuclear dilemma between the two states has shifted dramatically, and history will bear witness to the narrative of negotiations which altered with the complexities of this bilateral relationship.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea (R), with Kim Jong-Un (L).
• Largely following on from the previous point, one can make an argument for more realistic prospects of a partnership in Round II. The chief criticism of the first meeting was on the resulting vague conclusions, despite the greatly-hyped background conversations. However, the second summit is a signal of strengthened engagement, with the expectation of a reliable and sustainable dialogue – a key charter of durable negotiations. The initiation of working-level talks prior to the summit held in January, in Stockholm, and the ‘concrete deliverables’ discussed between U.S. envoy, Stephen Biegun, and his North Korean counterpart Kim Hyok Chol, are signs of optimism. The likelihood of this groundwork materializing in Vietnam is far greater than all talk of the ‘special bond' in the ‘promising’ words of Donald Trump.
• The recent opening up of a dialogue between the two political arch-rivals also opened up the Hermit kingdom to a long-queue of associates and players bandwagoning behind the United states. DPR Korea has occupied a significantly outsized presence on the world stage, but taking away from its infamous reputation, it is now being seen as a key player and negotiator. Most importantly, however, the imagery of DPRK as a renegade state with an irrational Supreme Leader has transformed. Kim Jong-Un is often even identified as a confident statesman, or the next archetypal insecure leader struggling to maintain his hold over a poverty-stricken, moribund nation. In line with arguments of Stephen M. Walt on U.S. propaganda and debate-setting, a shift in the US’s domestic imagery of Kim Jong-Un has allowed him to emerge as a formidable contender in the share of influence in global geopolitics.
• The lead towards February would also aid DPRK's engagement with other actors. At the forefront of this will be an uncontentious China, but prospects of deepened engagement with South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam, where Kim Jong-Un will also visit manufacturing and industrial areas, are also significant. President Moon Jae-in too, is looking to cash in on the bargaining chip as the United States-DPRK partnership is perceived to be coming at the cost of the decades long US-ROK military alliance. Reforming norms for credibility, the onus of engagement rests with DPRK but the summit has already successfully handed over the reigns to Jong-Un, if he choose to pick them up.
• The normative ethics of global nuclear politics have a tilted the balance towards realism, and first-order realities. Actor expectations and behaviors are shaped in line with these attributes. The nuclearization of the Korean peninsula has been one of the most persisting debacle for the nuclear regime, and norms defining non-proliferation, nuclear verification, and safeguarding security systems, have borrowed heavily from this debate. The impact on this complex would be a reanalysis of the nuclear-norms, but with the exception of an enhanced participation and inclusion of DPRK, primarily due to the weightage it currently holds in nuclear politics. This can swindle both ways, either by setting off a domino effect for other deviators and defectors of the existing brand of nuclear politics including Iran, and Israel, or encouraging values of using diplomatic channels and rebrand the Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) centric debate towards a consensus regime. Fortunately or unfortunately, both possibilities are equally probable.
• A direct corollary of the summit has also been on the actors indirectly involved in the game.
These beneficiaries do not play an indelible role in the process, but do get involved in gain-sharing. Shuttle diplomacy has made its come back with the involvement of Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and the role played by key mediating actors – Singapore and Vietnam, among others. The invaluable significance of this has been twofold. First, the fragility of the situation can be mediated and the careful balance maintained between the two strong actors can be strengthened. Second, any negotiations centric to the nuclear regime comes with the proviso that guarantees, and mutual assurances need to be secured, and this is usually achievable only with the involvement of hand-picked mediators.
PM Shinzo Abe of Japan (L) with President Donald Trump of USA (R).
• Realists are skeptics when it comes to discussing lasting agreements. Trump’s reputation for withdrawing from international agreements and backing out of significant multilateral promises, makes one doubt the possibility of a continuing and honored agreement being brought into action. The volte-face President, and the ambiguous Supreme Leader challenge the conventions of political action and decision-making. The second summit seems to be unprepared to deal with a scenario that involves a net loss.
• The real challenge for peace on the Korean peninsula and a complete end to nuclear antics and threats, would emerge from a resultant friendship dialogue between North and South Korea. However, with the US-North Korea relationship receiving a priority within the summit and the outside discourse around it, the possibility of South Korea experiencing a sense of alienation increases manifold. A step towards the ideological reconciliation between the split-up Koreas is necessary to bridge the gap of mutual mistrust which has sustained the problematic relationship with the United States too. The nuclear umbrella may have shielded the situation from breaking into an explosive conflict, but would the US, and South Korea, be willing and able to dismantle it in order to secure peace guarantees?
• The biggest challenge of the nuclear negotiations has been a no-say on the verification regime to follow any agreement. Despite the applause given to the ‘breakthrough’ achieved at the Singapore summit, apprehensions have remained largely unchanged. Suspicions over a secret nuclear weapons program, the fate of Yongbyon Research Center in DPRK, and conjectures over actions in Punggye-ri and Tongchang-ri, do not project much hope for firm securities emerging from the second summit. North Korea has been tight-lipped on discussions about security guarantees and the United States Senate – without the approval of which no accord makes sense – has been cynical, to say the least. The Worldwide Threat Assessment Report 2019 expresses with confidence, the lack of trust that the US has in North Korea’s promises to denuclearize. US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, has also made these doubts emphatically, and vocally, to the Senate Intelligence Committee. That North Korea’s is unlikely to give up ‘all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities, (as) North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival,’ is the thesis presented by the US intelligence community. This does not aid the looming ambivalence of the situation, on the eve of Vietnam.
• In the same vein, the absence of a concrete blueprint despite ‘exhaustive’ deliberations in the first summit do not project a different trajectory for the second summit. The promises being floated from the White House have raised the bars of expectations but nothing concrete has been realised so far to transform the distrust in the system into tangible gains. Any security dilemma cannot be eased without trust, and the persistent mistrust in this nuclear spiral demands more attention that just fleeting promises in dense speeches.
• While DPRK and the United States will meet on an equal platform per se, the disparity in their definitions of denuclearization give way to the prediction that a consensus would be impossible, especially since the end goals clearly seem to be different. In many ways, if this is to be the substantial dialogue, there are greater chances of a break-down than a break-through.
• Our last presentiment is the classic case of politics. As Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said recently,
‘...what is worrisome to me is, in an effort to be flattered by Kim Jong-un, that he (Trump) gives away something that might have a longer term effect for the next administration.’
Her concerns fit well with that of the US Congress, the administration generally, and rational thinkers at large, for there are great chances of the incumbent President passing off crucial pacts just to be the ‘greatest President,’ in history. For Trump, the allure of his ‘Noble Peace Prize’ is quite irresistible – not least because Obama, his much despised predecessor, was a recipient of the prize in his first term. This would bring to naught any efforts that the world has made to come closer to North Korea. Likewise, it would reassure defectors like Kim Jong-Un that there is much more to gain from defiance than there is from running behind the Trump regime, particularly in terms of honor and respect — indispensable elements of sustaining despotism. A lack of denuclearization will also embolden other states to defy the international regime against proliferation, in hopes of negotiating their way into the nuclear weapons state category – something that India, and Pakistan have already achieved. American history which once held dictators like Gaddafi and Hussein in its shop-windows of contempt, now holds Kim Jong-Un in an unprecedented display that seems to appease and benefit only Trump’s private, and Kim’s rather public, politics.
The choreography of conciliation in 2018 has done more towards exposing fault-lines than it has towards forging comprehensive engagement. At the same time, the very thought of which was impossible, will now take form in the shape of a follow-up summit between historical rivals. Whether the legacy of the Vietnam War would shadow or sustain this dialogue would an interesting dynamic to watch out. As Bruce W. Jentleson has posited, common policy ground, personal relationships and domestic politics, are the three P’s to consider when analyzing this relationship. The stage has been set for the Pas de deux between Dotard Trump and Rocket Man, as seasoned experts witness how agreements between leaders who defy international commitments and resolutions, are going to be forged.
However, summitry aside, our global nuclear governance policies and doctrines are in dire need of a critical re-analyses. The balance sheets of NWS and NNWS states need a re-look. However, for now, the 12 tells are what we all should watch out for, since they hold the capacity to make or break our current world system. For the sake of global nuclear peace, we must pray that Hanoi is not Trump’s Vietnam. Trump must know when to say, STOP!
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About the Author
Neha is pursuing her MPhil in Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. She is also a Political Analyst specializing in International Security Studies and holds a graduate degree in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, India, where she also pursued a postgraduate Diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. She has previously worked with The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well as The United Nations Information Centre for India and Bhutan. Her research interests and past work cover politics of the Middle East and South Asia. Neha is also a keen follower of developments in AI and has a number of laurels to her name in the domain of public speaking. She hopes to spend any time outside of her research learning languages, of which Spanish and French are already (arguably) her strong suit.