The next round of talks in Stockholm between North Korea and the US failed on the first day of negotiations after the North Korean side deemed it disappointing. US officials have not yet confirmed a de facto end of the negotiations. Nonetheless, the development stalls President Trump’s attempt to deliver his foreign policy masterpiece: denuclearisation of the North Korean peninsula. It also raises one question in particular: what has been achieved?
“We are disappointed in the US,” North Korean negotiator Kim Myong Gil told reporters on Saturday night following the Stockholm meeting. It was the first negotiation since a summit between US President Trump and North Korean dictator King Jong Un in Vietnam in February. The meeting also failed due to gaps in the issue of nuclear disarmament that were not bridged.
Trump and Kim had agreed on the new working-level negotiations in late June at a meeting at the inter-Korean border. “The negotiations did not live up to our expectations and were therefore discontinued,” the North Koreans said. The US had brought nothing to the negotiating table. Now it was up to Washington to resume the dialogue, he demanded.
Only a few hours earlier, US Secretary of State Pompeo had been confident that initial progress could be made. This first exchange, after a long break, was supposed to form the basis for negotiations in the coming weeks and months.
The modest goal? Cease seven decades of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula. Albeit achieving sustainable process in denuclearizing the regime would have been a decent start.
Surprisingly, the US side stated the nuclear talks with Pyongyang had not failed. Quite the contrary, the more than eight-hour-long talks in Stockholm had been “good,” the US State Department said.
Trump’s strategy on North Korea has frequently been subject to criticism by foreign policy experts. With many of them arguing Kim was playing for time to upgrade his nuclear arsenal while utilising the US President for photo-ops.
Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, for example, said Monday that North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons program voluntarily, despite summit meetings and negotiations. North Korea remains a grave and growing threat, Bolton opined. He has long been a proponent of a regime change on the island.
North Korea had recently tested several short-range and medium-range missiles. The previous Wednesday, the country tested a new type of ballistic missile type Pukguksong-3, which was reportedly fired by a submarine. It would be a significant step forward for North Korea’s weapons program. The US military denied, however, that the rocket was fired by a submarine.
The UN Security Council condemned the test and suggested that sanctions could be intensified. As a result, North Korea issued a warning to the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany saying additional sanctions would “further urge our desire to defend our sovereignty.”
Donald Trump has put himself in a peculiar situation with North Korea by promising to disarm the country. If achieved, it would become a milestone of modern US foreign policy. Trump could claim to have brought peace to a region. An achievement, none of his predecessors, facilitated.
However, the appeasement of Pyongyang has not worked out, as The United States was not provided anything of relevance in return for meeting with the North Korean dictator. Worse yet, it is unlikely to change till the 2020 elections. Why? Because Trump currently has no tool other than diplomacy available. He cannot and will not risk his election chances by engaging in a lethal and potentially nuclear conflict.
Pyongyang will likely continue to play hardball for another year, in an attempt to receive as many concessions as possible from the US. The North Koreans are, of course, also cognizant, that a second term President is significantly more unpredictable than a first-term one. Not having to win another election makes deploying troops much more manageable, one would think.
The question is, how many concessions is President Trump willing to provide? A continuation of the negotiations provides a guaranteed news flow. Considering his current domestic issues, Trump needs to be successful in North Korea, if only to distract from daily political Washington.