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Still hope for a North Korean nuclear deal

Greater engagement by China, Russia and Japan improves prospects despite missile tests

The failure of the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi has provoked deep pessimism about the chances of success in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

North Korea's recent firing of short-range missiles and multiple rocket launcher projectiles in a military drill in has reinforced this impression. Kim's show of force since the February summit reveals his growing frustration with the lack of progress in easing international sanctions on his regime. It was also an implicit reminder that the clock is ticking on his threat to resume testing of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles after the end of the year.

But let's not be so gloomy. These events obscure the fact that negotiations about the future of North Korea's nuclear arsenal might be about to enter a new -- and perhaps a more productive -- phase as other regional powers become more actively involved.

It is becoming clear that China, Russia and even Japan have qualms about the ability of Trump and Kim to settle the nuclear issue on their own as they pursue their bromance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently met Kim for the first time as they held a summit in Vladivostok. There is talk that Chinese President Xi Jinping might visit North Korea following the four meetings he has held with Kim in China over the past year.

Perhaps more significantly is the recent suggestion by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he is willing to meet Kim "unconditionally" to try to improve relations.

Until now, Japan has been the only regional power sitting on the sidelines on North Korea. Tokyo has long taken the most hawkish attitude toward Pyongyang because of the emotional row over past kidnappings of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.

But the Japanese government has softened its line on Pyongyang recently both in response to Kim's "smile diplomacy" and the possibility of North Korea's participation in the summer 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Abe laid the groundwork for a possible summit with Kim to discuss the abduction issue in a recent Diet policy speech.

Depending on how much progress Kim makes in boosting ties with Russia, China, and the United States, Abe could feel even more left out unless he acts now. He might like a breakthrough with North Korea before the upper house elections this year.

Although it does not seem in the cards yet, it is important to note that any eventual normalization of relations with Pyongyang would involve a huge financial settlement. Figures bruited about in Tokyo suggest that the price of an accompanying aid package might be as high as tens of billion dollars based on an extrapolation of what Seoul got from the normalization of diplomatic ties with Japan in 1965.

Signs of renewed engagement by China, Russia and Japan do not necessarily involve a return to the Six Party Talks that also involved the two Koreas and the U.S. since they were viewed as cumbersome. Rather their role would be to guarantee whatever deal is reached between Washington and Pyongyang, such as offering multilateral security guarantees to North Korea and a regional arms control regime in return for nuclear disarmament.

And negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. are by no means dead despite alarmist talk in Washington. Even after the collapse of the Hanoi summit, the personal chemistry between Trump and Kim seems to remain genuinely good. Although Kim was embarrassed by the abrupt end of the Hanoi summit, he has refrained from making any negative comments about Trump. Instead North Korean officials have criticized U.S. National Security John Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the summit's failure. Trump and Kim have both expressed their willingness hold a third summit.

In retrospect, it appears that the Hanoi summit was derailed by Trump's mounting domestic political troubles. On the eve of the meeting, media reports suggested that a deal was in sight. The expectation was that the two leaders would agree to halt North Korea's fissile material production and missile testing in return for partial U.S. sanctions relief. It would also have included a declaration to end the Korean War, resumption of remains recovery operations, and the opening of liaison offices in both capitals.

At the meeting, however, the U.S. passed a note to Kim insisting that the nuclear issue be resolved along the lines of the Libyan model with Pyongyang turning over its fissile material and nuclear warheads to the U.S. and eliminating all other weapons of mass destruction. The so-called "big package" proposal said nothing about reciprocal U.S. moves. It was a radical departure from Trump's previous step-by-step approach.

With his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, simultaneously testifying in televised Congressional hearings, Trump may have felt that a deal involving anything less than Kim's total surrender would have been too risky. The national security establishment would have skewered it. But Trump may now be coming out from under the cloud of accusations of colluding with Russia since the release of the Mueller report. He may now have more freedom to maneuver.

Trump's fulsome comments about his feelings for Kim when he hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington in April shows that he does not want to give up yet. These sentiments seem to have been reciprocated in Kim's subsequent speech to the Supreme People's Assembly when he had nice words to say about Trump.

The main future sticking point will be the sequencing between the lifting of sanctions and denuclearization. A hopeful sign is Trump telling Moon recently that he agreed with Seoul giving food aid to North Korea.

The U.S. has long had a psychological fixation on sanctions. But most academic studies show sanctions are largely ineffective. They are also sticky -- once put in place they become devilishly hard to lift. Worse, sanctions can backfire or make the target state unpredictable.

In the case of North Korea, a major negative effect is that sanctions block Pyongyang's self-proclaimed attempt to shift from a "dual track" military/economic policy to an "economy-first" policy, which promises to greatly contribute to peninsula-wide stabilization. This should be encouraged not stymied.

The increased involvement of Xi, Putin and Abe and their possible promises of economic development aid may now give Trump the political cover he needs domestically to partially ease sanctions in return for Kim's gradual dismantlement of his nuclear program.

John Merrill is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Korean Studies at George Washington University and former head of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department.

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