Two years ago, the world witnessed an unprecedented summit. Hosted by Singapore, US President Donald Trump and the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, met in Sentosa on 21 June 2018.
Never since the armistice of 1953, that had ended three years of war between the two Koreas plus the United States and China, had a sitting US president and a North Korean leader got together. Hopes had run high that such a summit-level meeting could pave the way towards an agreement on a political process that could unentangle, in due time, and through patient diplomacy, the military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. The Sentosa Summit took place 18 months after the election of President Trump, during which time he had raised the stakes vis-à-vis North Korea, threatening to annihilate it in a “fire and fury” campaign.
Before Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader in Singapore, US think tanks and influential media were sceptical as to the true aims of the Kim Jong-Un. They were of the belief — at least the majority of them — that North Korea was mainly interested in sanctions relief, in addition to seeking what they called “international legitimacy”. The US administration made it clear that the main objective of American diplomacy was the denuclearisation of North Korea, considered sine quo non for lifting US sanctions and agreeing to end UN sanctions on Pyongyang. From their own experience in previous rounds of negotiations, senior US officials and diplomats were highly sceptical of the true intentions of the North Koreans.
The Sentosa Summit was made possible to a large extent by the overtures of Moon Jae-In, the president of South Korea, towards Pyongyang. A few months before the summit, North Korean teams participated in the Winter Olympic Games hosted by South Korea. The teams were accompanied by a high-level official delegation that included the sister of the North Korean leader, Ms Kim Yo-Jong, a rising star in the high political echelons of power in North Korea.
At Sentosa, the Americans and the North Koreans agreed on a Political Declaration that committed both sides to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, among other things of which figured the repatriation of the remains of American soldiers who died on the battlefield during the Korean War. In fact, the North Koreans did return some remains. However, the US administration kept stressing the need to make quick progress on the denuclearisation question, not of the Korean Peninsula, as per the declaration, but that of North Korea without simultaneous reciprocal steps, either to grant Pyongyang some sanctions relief, or to begin taking confidence-building measures on the Peninsula to prove to the North Koreans that it has serious and credible intentions in reaching a fair and lasting peace deal with North Korea.
In February 2019, President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Hanoi for a second summit that failed to solve the Gordian knot in the denuclearisation question; mainly, whether that means North Korea only, or the whole of the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, the US administration failed to provide concessions to Kim Jong-Un concerning sanctions relief. The summit proved to be a diplomatic failure for both the Americans and the South Koreans.
Despite this failure, hopes were temporarily rekindled when President Trump became the first sitting US president to set foot on North Korean territory in June 2019, while visiting Seoul.
The two sides have failed, ever since, to achieve any progress in carrying out the promises of the Sentosa Political Declaration, a situation that led the North Koreans to resume testing of medium-range missiles and, lately, news that North Korea is working on developing a new “strategic weapon”. The lack of diplomatic progress on the one hand, and the coronavirus crisis with its dire economic consequences on the economy of North Korea on the other, probably explain why the North Koreans decided to draw the line on diplomatic engagement with both the United States and South Korea.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency carried last Friday, 12 June, a statement by the Foreign Minister of North Korea Ri Son Gwon, in which he said that, “what stands out is the hope for improved DPRK-US relations — which was high in the air and under the spotlight two years ago — has now been shifted into despair.” He added that even, “a slim ray of optimism for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula has faded away into a dark nightmare.” He emphasised that the North Korean leader fulfilled the promise he had made by ordering the total shutdown of the northern nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, and the repatriation of scores of American POW/MIA remains.
He warned that the Korean Peninsula has turned into “the world’s most dangerous hotspot haunted... by the ghost of nuclear war”. He specifically referred to the sale by the United States of advanced stealth fighter jets to South Korea. From the standpoint of Pyongyang, this sale is tantamount to a grave provocation.
Similarly, North Korea decided Tuesday, 9 June, to cut off all communications lines with South Korea, including military hotlines. Ominously enough, Seoul was treated as an “enemy”. The North Korean News Agency carried a statement that day that said Pyongyang has “reached a conclusion that there is no need to sit face to face with the South Korean authorities”.
Needless to say, this position is a major political and diplomatic setback for the South Korean president who had worked hard to develop friendly relations with North Korea. His official visit to Pyongyang was proof that the two Koreas have been serious in taking the road of gradual normalisation of relations. For the time being, and till the US presidential elections take place 3 November, the situation on the Korean Peninsula will remain at a dangerous standstill.
I doubt that the North Koreans would do something foolish. Still, we should expect more missile testing, particularly for medium-range missiles. Nuclear testing and long-range missile testing are not expected, for now — notwithstanding the “strategic weapon” that Kim Jong-Un referred to last week.
The recent decisions by Pyongyang should be wake up call to Washington and Seoul that there should be some concessions to North Korea in terms of sanctions relief if they are serious about to fulfilling the promise of the Political Declaration reached in Sentosa two years back. The all-or-nothing approach has proven a failed idea. The writing had been on the wall all along. The time to US presidential elections should be one of reassessing the overall negotiating strategy towards North Korea, which will never accept the complete dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal and infrastructure in the absence of a denuclearisation programme for the Korean Peninsula.
Moreover, it should be noted that the worsening of relations between China and the United States has probably encouraged North Korea to shift gears. Recent statements out of Pyongyang stressed that China is overtaking America as a superpower. If this is the perception of the leaders of North Korea, then what is offered in return for denuclearisation should be very generous indeed.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly