Can US-North Korea Talks Be Revived?

In the aftermath of the collapse of US-North Korean denuclearization talks in February at the failed summit in Hanoi between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Premier Kim Jong-un, expectations of a diplomatic settlement between the two nations have declined considerably. However, despite renewed missile tests by North Korea and the US seizure of a sanctions-breaking North Korean ship, President Trump remains optimistic. His top diplomatic and security advisers do not seem to entirely share this optimism, nor does Japan, the top US regional ally. Conventional wisdom on foreign affairs is generally skeptical of Trump’s high hopes on North Korea. But Trump has been rewriting the US diplomatic playbook since taking office, and another surprise turn in the US-North Korea relationship can’t be ruled out.

Even for an administration not known for consistency and conventional methods when it comes to policy coordination and messaging, the response by the Trump administration to recent North Korean tests of what are believed to be a new solid-fueled short-range ballistic missile was particularly confused. On the eve of President Trump’s historic visit to Japan, where he became the first foreign leader to have a personal audience with Japan’s new emperor, his National Security Adviser John Bolton declared that “UN Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from firing any ballistic missiles.” He then added, “In terms of violating UN Security Council resolutions, there is no doubt about that.” Bolton’s comments were made in Tokyo, following meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to the arrival of Trump.

Bolton’s comments mirrored the position taken by Abe, who had previously opined that the North Korean missile tests, conducted on May 4 and 9, “are a breach of UN Security Council resolutions and extremely regrettable.” They should be responded to “by strengthening enforcement of related UN Security Council resolutions.” Japan has consistently taken a hard line toward North Korea’s nuclear program and testing of ballistic missiles, many of which have violated Japan’s territorial integrity. It is alone among the members of the Six-Party Talks, which also include the US, Russia, China, and South Korea, in not engaging in bilateral negotiations or meetings with North Korea.

The seeming commonality between Bolton and Abe was then shattered by President Trump, who declared via Twitter that the North Korean tests involved “small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.” Later, at a reception with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump continued to downplay North Korea’s missile testing and its potential threat to Japan, saying that it “seems to have stopped” rocket testing and predicting that the future holds “lots of good things.”

While both Trump and Abe have expressed support for the denuclearization of North Korea and the betterment of relations with Kim Jong-un’s reclusive nation, their common objectives do not mean they agree on how best to accomplish them. Donald Trump, stymied by hard-liners inside his administration, who are led by Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has watched his dream of solving a North Korean policy puzzle founder. Critical differences on the scope, scale and timing of denuclearization, and the relationship between denuclearization and the lifting of economic sanctions, have stymied US-North Korea negotiations. North Korea has blamed the US for the breakdown at the Hanoi Summit, calling the US approach “arbitrary and dishonest” and declaring that it will no longer negotiate with either Bolton or Pompeo. “Unless the United States comes forward with a new method of calculation,” a North Korean official recently stated, “the DPRK-US dialogue will never be resumed and by extension, the prospect for resolving the nuclear issue will be much gloomy.” North Korea has given the US a year to get the negotiations back on track.

Next Moves

On the surface, Japan would appear an odd choice to help Trump revive his North Korean policy. Prime Minister Abe takes the threat posed by North Korea’s missiles and nuclear capability to heart much more than Trump does, with his seemingly nonchalant approach to the issue. Furthermore, any hope of Japanese-North Korean rapprochement is hamstrung by the unresolved matter of Japanese abductees — some 17 Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea during the 1970s. The fate of these abductees holds the key to future Japanese-North Korean diplomacy. Trump may find some negotiating leverage here. In a meeting with Abe near the end of his visit, Trump discussed the issue of returning the abductees to Japan and promised to help on the issue. “We’ll work on that together,” Trump told the Japanese prime minister.

Unlike the other Six-Party nations, the US and Japan are not currently engaged in active diplomacy with North Korea. South Korea continues to focus on improving economic ties between the two Koreas, despite economic sanctions. Both China and Russia have held high-level talks with Kim Jong-un on the issue of denuclearization and addressing the related issue of economic sanctions. Bringing Japan to the table together with North Korea to address the North Korean economy, especially the looming issue of food shortages that stem from drought, would go far in engendering stability on the Korean Peninsula and boosting confidence on the part of all parties in a diplomatic path forward. This will not happen without a breakthrough regarding the fate of the Japanese abductees, which could occur if Trump were to take a personal stake in facilitating a positive outcome.

One major obstacle between Trump and any outreach to North Korea on the abductee issue is his national security adviser, John Bolton. Prior to assuming his current position, Bolton had often articulated hard-line policy positions, including pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure. Recently, Bolton coordinated the seizure of a North Korean ship that had been detained in Indonesia in 2018 when it was found to be carrying an illicit shipment of coal. While the coal was eventually released to the intended customer, the ship was held in port until recently, when the US Department of Justice used a civil forfeiture action to allow the ship to be confiscated and towed to American Samoa, where it remains docked at a port in Pago Pago. Bolton suggested that the North Korean ship could be traded for the USS Pueblo, a spy ship seized by North Korea in 1968.

North Korea has condemned the seizure of the ship as “an unlawful and egregious act,” calling it another “instance of the extreme hostile policy of the United States.” Regarding Bolton, North Korea has labeled him a “warmonger” and “human defect” with whom there can be no negotiations. In the past, Trump has expressed his support of John Bolton as a trusted adviser, even though media reports suggest White House frustration over the hard-line positions Bolton has taken vis-à-vis Venezuela and Iran. It is hard to square Bolton’s North Korean stance with any hope of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Despite John Bolton’s positions, Donald Trump does not seem to have given up on rekindling diplomacy with North Korea. In fact, he seems to be planning on using Japan as a catalyst to do so. The Trump-Abe relationship has been strong from the moment Donald Trump won the 2016 US Presidential election and Abe broke with protocol to visit the president-elect in his New York City home. The most recent visit to Japan is one of three meetings between the two leaders in a short span of time — Abe visited Trump in Washington, DC, in late April, and Trump will be returning to Japan in late June for the G20 economic summit. There he is expected to meet with both China’s President, Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. North Korea will likely top the list of discussion topics for both leaders. Trump is also scheduled to make a visit to South Korea in June to meet with President Moon.

Russia’s role will be critical for any diplomatic solution to the problem of North Korean denuclearization. Following a meeting with Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok in late April, Putin said a deal on North Korea’s nuclear program remained a possibility. “They only need guarantees about their security. That’s it. All of us together need to think about this,” Putin said after talks with Kim. For his part, Trump said “I appreciated President Putin’s statement … He wants to see it done also. I think there’s a lot of excitement for getting a deal done with North Korea.”

“Anything in this very interesting world is possible,” Trump tweeted before heading to Japan. “But I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”

The desire for a diplomatic resolution to the problem of North Korean denuclearization clearly remains front and center on Trump’s list of priorities. Whether this desire can be transformed into reality remains to be seen, but Trump clearly wants to succeed in an arena where other recent US presidents have failed.

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