GP Insights # 371, 20 June 2020
On the second anniversary of the Singapore Summit, the meeting between Trump-Kim Jong-un, North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon said, "never again will we provide the US chief executive with another package to be used for achievements without receiving any returns."
The North Korean leadership regretted the meeting held with the US President and used the second anniversary of the meeting to pledge a possible remilitarisation of the DMZ. North Korea has accused the Trump administration of extracting political mileage out of the leaders' meet.
Furthermore, the North Korean leadership, led by Kim Jong-Un's sister Kim Yo Jong, has warned the US that it should keep away from inter-Korean affairs if it wants the "easy holding of the upcoming Presidential election." North Korea's relations with the US remains in a deadlock, even as an election-oriented Trump administration that is having a confrontation with China remains distracted elsewhere.
What is the background?
First, hopes from Singapore to stalemate in Hanoi. After years of strategic jostling and exchange of barbs, the US-North Korea relations appeared on the cusp of change in the 2018 Singapore Summit, through the Trump-Kim Jong Un meet. The meeting had raised much hope with both countries' promising to "join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula" and the DPRK committing to working towards "complete denuclearisation". A second summit in Hanoi between Kim Jong Un and Trump ended in a stalemate after the two countries were unable to reach any agreement.
Second, a simultaneously steady decline in the inter-Korean relationship. For days leading up to the second anniversary of the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, relations between the DPRK and the ROK are on a downward spiral with North Korea announcing on 9 June that it "will completely cut off and shut down the liaison line between the authorities of the North and the South, which has been maintained through the North-South joint liaison office." This culminated in hostile action by North Korea when it destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office. The building was located in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. The latest escalation between the two Koreas has been on the issue of anti-regime pamphlets being sent from across the border by defectors from North Korea who have taken refuge in South Korea.
What does it mean?
First, the future course of the US-North Korea relations is back to square one. After a dire warning from North Korea wherein it vowed to never again let the US use another package for [political] achievements without receiving any returns, any possible negotiation with Pyongyang stands constricted for the US. The pressure is likely to increase on South Korea in the coming days as North Korea interprets the diplomacy as “nothing is more hypocritical than an empty promise.” The future of the US-DPRK dialogue is back to square one. With constricting space for the US for any possible negotiation, the pressure on South Korea is likely to increase in the coming days. It has been a long strategy for the DPRK regimes to threaten or attack the ROK to gain concessions from the US. The possibility for any concessions from the US to North Korea vis-a-vis sanctions or international trade remains remote despite pressure on South Korea. Trump administration remains engaged internally in an increasingly divisive politics as the US nears an election in November.
Second, the negotiating tactics of Trump are completely different from his predecessors. Even though the ROK is a non-NATO ally, Trump administration has not shied away from demanding concessions from South Korea for stationing its troops in Seoul. Trump administration has lessened external balancing with most of its allies, including South Korea. Such an outlook is likely to strengthen in an election year, a year that has ravaged the American economy due to increasing job losses due to the pandemic and has seen worst domestic unrest in over 50 years. South Korea should not count on the uncertain policy of Trump administration. This, among other things, does not portend better days for inter-Korea relations.