GP Insights # 368, 13 June 2020
On 12 June, North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon said that it is futile to continue maintaining a relationship between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the United States President Donald Trump. On the occasion of the second anniversary of the 2018 Singapore summit between the two leaders, the foreign minister said that the US could no longer bring peace and prosperity to the Korean peninsula.
The reason behind the escalation of tensions between Pyongyang and Washington came after the disappointment expressed by the United States on the closing of hotline communications between North and South Korea.
Last week also witnessed tensions between the two Koreas over the balloons from South Korea carrying anti-regime message leaflets into South Korea. While North Korea is upset about this propaganda, South Korea has announced to take action those activists for sending balloons, mostly those who defected from North Korea.
What is the background?
First, the failure of Trump-Kim personal diplomacy. Over the last two years, there was hype on the meetings between the two leaders along with the failure to take forward the relations between the two countries. While the United States has asked for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula before easing of sanctions, North Korea insists that sanctions be removed earlier. The 2018 Singapore summit created a hype, but the agreements lacked clarity. Persistent sanctions from the US and differences during the 2019 Hanoi summit frustrated Kim Jong-un to the extent that this was followed by weapon tests and increased pressure on Seoul and Washington by North Korea.
Second, the anti-Kim propaganda from South Korea by North Korean defectors. Activists (including those who have defected from North Korea) in South Korea have been sending leaflets attached to helium balloons across the border, criticizing Kim Jong-un over his nuclear ambitions and abysmal human rights record. On failing to stop this, North Korea expressed its anger by threatening to permanently shut down a liaison office with South Korea as well as nullify the 2018 inter-Korean agreement. South Korea wants to continue the dialogue with North Korea and balance its liberal policies within.
Third, the Sino-North Korea bonhomie. In support of North Korea's statement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that the US should take concrete measures to address North Korea's legitimate concerns. North Korea-China bonhomie has been evident from the meetings between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping over denuclearisation and peace in the Korean peninsula. North Korea has regularly sought advice from China's premier on negotiation strategies before the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit.
What does it mean?
First, North Korea is in a difficult economic situation due to the pandemic and the sanctions imposed on it. It is only interested in mild provocation and has resorted to maintaining pressure on Seoul and Washington. The recent events with North Korea have pushed South Korea's interest in ensuring peace in the region.
Second, while China is expected to continue its economic and political support, North Korea is likely to wait until after the November elections before deciding a path forward with the United States. The United States is unlikely to engage in a confrontation with North Korea due to its domestic situation.