The stage is set for a return to U.S.-North Korea brinkmanship, with Pyongyang ignoring repeated offers from the Trump administration to restart stalled nuclear talks, while China and Russia are pressing to lift international sanctions on the isolated nation despite its refusal to drop its nuclear programs.
The top U.S. envoy for North Korea on Tuesday ended a three-day visit to Seoul this week without a hoped-for meeting with North Korean officials, as Pyongyang stuck to its threat to launch fresh provocations unless the U.S. offers major concessions by the end of the year.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun made clear during his visit to Seoul that Washington won’t accept the arbitrary deadline. He also suggested the Trump administration would be disappointed but not surprised if the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un engages in weapons tests or some other aggressive action in the coming weeks.
“Let me be absolutely clear: The United States does not have a deadline,” Mr. Biegun told reporters in the South Korean on Monday. “We are fully aware of the strong potential for North Korea to conduct a major provocation in the days ahead. To say the least, such an action will be most unhelpful in achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Analysts say the Trump administration finds itself increasingly being backed into a corner by Pyongyang’s refusal to discuss serious denuclearization efforts while demanding relief from punishing international sanctions. A string of missile tests and military exercises by the North have only worsened the atmosphere.
Mr. Kim’s regime “could incrementally raise tensions with medium- and intermediate-range missile launches or jump immediately to an ICBM or nuclear test,” Mr. Klingner said, adding that the latter “would cross Trump’s red line and trigger a strong U.S. response.”
“There are concerns that Trump could either return to threats of preventive attack, which could lead to an all-out war on the peninsula, or accept a minimal, poorly crafted deal to maintain the facade of progress with Kim Jong Un,” Mr. Klingner said.
Fixing the blame
Patrick Cronin, a regional expert with the Hudson Institute, said Mr. Kim is seeking maximum concessions in exchange for “minimal denuclearization steps.” Mr. Biegun’s trip this week, he said in an interview, was meant in part to put the blame squarely on Pyongyang for any breakdown in diplomacy.
“Steve Biegun is forcing Kim to decide if and when to make a deal,” Mr. Cronin said, although he added that “there is a danger Kim’s future provocations [will] make it look as though the Trump administration has returned to the discredited policy of ‘strategic patience.’”
Scott Snyder, who heads the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was unclear whether the notoriously secretive Kim regime is truly playing with the fire or simply using threats and belligerent rhetoric to gain the upper hand in talks with the U.S., with Mr. Trump under pressure to reach a deal in a presidential election year.
“The North Koreans are dealing with a U.S. that is much larger and more powerful then they are, and they feel like they need to create a crisis in order to have negotiations,” Mr. Snyder said. “… The problem is that their actions are going to look the same until they reverse course and come back to the negotiating table.”
Mr. Biegun in Seoul appeared to be putting the onus on North Korea to improve the atmosphere and resume the talks.
“Let me speak directly to our counterparts in North Korea,” he told reporters. “It is time for us to do our jobs. Let’s get this done. We are here, and you know how to reach us.”
Hanging over the recent diplomacy is Mr. Kim’s threat to take action if the U.S. does not soften its position by the end of the month. Pyongyang has not explicitly said the concessions must come in the form of sanctions relief, but that has been the North’s consistent demand and now China and Russia, which have close economic ties with Pyongyang, have appeared poised to advance the North Korean demand.
On Monday, Beijing and Moscow proposed that the United Nations Security Council lift a ban on North Korean exports of seafood and textiles, while easing restrictions on infrastructure projects and North Koreans working overseas, according to a draft resolution seen by the Reuters news agency. The resolution also calls for a resumption of multilateral “six-party talks” that would give Beijing and Moscow a seat at the negotiating table.
“We all know that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is really at a critical stage,” Chinese Ambassador to the U.N. Zhang Jun said in New York Tuesday. “And while we all expect progress forward, we have to really do whatever we can to prevent the situation from rolling back and to prevent a more deteriorated situation.”
The State Department quickly made it known Tuesday it opposed the China-Russia resolution, warning that easing sanctions would be “premature” at a time when Pyongyang is threatening to conduct “an escalated provocation” and is refusing to meet with U.S. officials.
China and Russia, which both wield veto power on the Security Council, were key votes in imposing the sanctions in recent years under the “maximum pressure” campaign championed by the Trump administration. Mr. Biegun will be in Beijing Thursday and Friday for talks with top Chinese leaders, the State Department confirmed Tuesday.
A Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi in February broke up abruptly when Mr. Trump says he rejected North Korea’s demand for sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of the North’s nuclear arsenal — a characterization Pyongyang later disputed.
“Working-level” talks led by Mr. Biegun in October broke up quickly without movement, and the standoff deepened last week, with North Korea accusing the U.S. of engaging in a “stupid” and “hostile provocation” by convening a U.N. Security Council meeting on a recent wave of short-range missile tests by Pyongyang.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien warned it would be a “big mistake” if Mr. Kim were to carry out a nuclear bomb test. The North Korean leader has refrained such tests, as well as from long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles launches, since the Singapore summit in June 2018 — a pause Mr. Trump cites as a major payoff of his diplomatic approach.
Mr. Trump faces rising pressure to consider short-term concessions in a bid to revive talks, because the alternative — escalation and brinkmanship — could spiral into a major military clash.
Some also criticize the administration for failing to articulate its own bottom line in the talks.
“We are at this point primarily because the Trump administration refused to be specific about what it was willing to offer Kim,” said Jessica Lee, a fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute. “Issuing more threats will not compel Pyongyang to recommit itself to diplomacy.”
North Korea, she said a new analysis this week, “needs to know what we are asking them to say yes to.”
“Specifically, the U.S. should offer partial sanctions relief, declare the end of the Korean War, and offer to open a liaison office in Pyongyang in exchange for concrete steps by North Korea to suspend all weapons-related nuclear activities over a period of 12 months,” she wrote.
Others said the recent difficulties highlight a basic disconnect — the U.S. wants Mr. Kim to give up a nuclear weapons capability he sees as essential to his regime’s survival.
“The goal of the North Koreans is to improve relations with the U.S. as a nuclear state — in other words, they want detente but not denuclearization while we want detente in exchange for denuclearization,” Mr. Snyder said. “As a result, there is still a fundamentally unbridgeable gap in the positions of the two sides.”
Mr. Klingner argued that the Trump administration has failed to fully enforce sanctions already imposed on North Korea and right now should be knuckling down rather than considering concessions for Pyongyang.
Mr. Biegun “has consistently emphasized that the U.S. is seeking diplomatic dialogue to resolve the nuclear crisis,” Mr. Klingner said. “Yet Pyongyang has consistently rejected engagement in favor of developing its nuclear and missile arsenals in violation of UN resolutions.”
“Since the Singapore summit,” he added, “Trump has undermined his maximum pressure policy by constraining enforcement of U.S. sanctions laws, risked allied deterrence by cancelling numerous military exercises, and embraced a purveyor of crimes against humanity.”
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