Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the current reconciliation with North Korea is to put it into two words: slow and uncertain. The fact that the West even finds itself at the current stage should not be taken for granted.
The progress made thus far on taming Pyongyang has been tremendous. The Singapore Summit last June was a major step forward in normalizing relations between DPRK, the United States and, by extension, the rest of the free world. None have been more pleased with this progress than the South Koreans who by any measure have the most to lose in the event of an actual conflict. South Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Yong put it best when he said back in March of last year (months before Singapore took place) that the gains of President Donald Trump on North Korea have vindicated the administration’s policy. “[Trump’s] leadership and his maximum pressure policy together with international solidarity brought us to this juncture,” stated Chung.
Bumps in the Road
Of course it has been far from smooth sailing since last summer.
While all parties committed to relatively clear goals, both sides have their expectations of how things are meant to progress. The United States has pretty much taken the stance that denuclearization is the absolute prerequisite for any additional steps forward. North Korea’s leaders, on the other hand, have been demanding an end to sanctions before any concessions on their end. Inevitably, this has led to impatience in both Washington and Pyongyang.
Like many international conflicts, the DPRK vs. West saga has many interconnected factors at play. The speed (or lack of) which North Korea is dismantling its nuclear infrastructure has certainly been the most dominant. Naysayers have been accusing DPRK of lying about denuclearization and in fact enhancing its arsenal, claims that in truth, have been disingenuous at best and outright fabrications at worst. Another extremely important element —although much less discussed on the international stage— is North Korea’s economy. While DPRK despots are clearly willing to cope with the widespread suffering of their people, even that may have limits. In August, the Bank of Korea announced a new low in North Korea’s economic stagnation, with growth at an abysmal -3.5 percent as of 2017. Every area of North Korea’s economy has been permeated with systemic collapse, wreaking havoc on living conditions throughout the country. This has only been bolstered by international sanctions on goods and basic equipment.
Major developments on the reconciliation process have been absent from the news for some time. But that was never going to last long.
Three important revelations have come to light almost simultaneously. Although on the surface disconnected, it’s worth examining each to understand how all will inevitably affect reconciliation moving forward:
A New Year’s Message
Last week, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un delivered a New Year’s address in which he gave ample time to discussing his country’s relationship with the West. While recognized that DPRK and the United States have come a long way over the past year, Kim also alluded to his rapidly depleting patience. Kim states that North Korea would have “no option but to explore a new path in order to protect our sovereignty” if Washington “continues to break its promises and misjudges our patience by unilaterally demanding certain things and pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure.” Although he did not give details on what that “new path” might entail, and what “promises” Washington had broken, the message was clear: remove the sanctions or our commitment to de-nuking is over. Also alluded to in the speech was North Korea’s old demands that: (A) the United States declare an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War, and (B) for the South to end its military drills and broader defense cooperation with the US—those two elements being closely connected.
The president also spoke up recently on his North Korea policy. According to President Trump, Kim Jong-un had sent him a “great letter” concerning the future of U.S.-North Korean relations. Trump further stated at a recent cabinet meeting that he and the North Korean leader had “really established a very good relationship” over the past several months since Singapore and the U.S. were ready for “another meeting.”
Trump expressing his hopes for another summit came only a day after Kim’s New Year’s address was released. The fact that Trump brought up another round of talks is the closest thing to “reaching out” to North Korea to be expected from the administration. It shows that while he and his top diplomats have taken a pretty hardline stance, they are not passively waiting around for DPRK to comply with demands. Trump is signaling that he actually wants things to work out, and is in fact not bent of “breaking promises” or “pushing ahead with pressure” as Kim may suspect.
Another very important piece of news on the Korean saga came out nearly a week ago. According to government sources, the military cooperation agreement between South Korea and the U.S. is set to expire. As of now, no new deal has been agreed upon.
The so-called Special Measures Agreement is a five-year contract that requires South Korea to pay $830 million per year to help upkeep the 28,000 strong American force guarding the country from it’s crazed and aggressive northern neighbor. That sum covers about half of the total budget. The holdup to a new deal is actually coming from Trump’s insistence that Seoul increase its contribution by fifty percent. As Trump told troops during a recent visit to Iraq, “wealthy countries cannot expect the United States to pay for a vast majority of their military. They can pay us. They can reimburse us.”
The delay on a new U.S.-South Korea military co-op may actually help reconciliation with the North. It shows Pyongyang that America is in no rush to bolster itself militarily on the Peninsula.