Strategic Space

North Korea and the US Disembark from a Summit Train Going Nowhere

23 Jun, 2020    ·   5698

Dr Manpreet Sethi recommends a close observation of North Korean behaviour as global attention shifts to more immediate concerns

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

China has dominated headlines across the world in June 2020. This is not just because of the global fight against COVID-19, whose virus originated in China, but also because the country has simultaneously activated prickly issues with India, the US, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to name but a few of the relationships that have been trending this summer owing to Beijing’s aggressive behaviour.

For India, this manifested in the form of a tense military face-off in eastern Ladakh. The matter had been simmering since mid-April and turned particularly bloody mid-June. Caught up in these developments, India paid little attention to another event that was taking place in northeast Asia. This was the rather grim commemoration of the second anniversary of the historic Trump-Kim meeting that took place in Singapore on 12 June 2018.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) chose this day to bid farewell to the summit process that had generated much excitement only two short years ago. It vowed instead to further build its nuclear and military force to counter perceived threats. While there is little reason for India to be overly concerned with these developments, there are indirect implications that should not be ignored. And, of course, China, which seems to be everywhere these days, has more than just a finger in the North Korean nuclear pie, from where clandestine nuclear business has been known to have been done in the past.

On 12 June 2020, a strongly worded statement was issued by DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It drew attention to the Singapore Summit, where US President Donald Trump and DPRK Premier Kim Jong-un held the first-of-its-kind bilateral meeting between these two countries caught in a hostile relationship since the 1950s Korean War. Pyongyang had long indicated its desire for direct negotiations with the US for resolving their relations, including addressing concerns about its nuclear programme. Washington, however, had preferred the trilateral, quadrilateral, and six-party talks formats. However, an out-of-the-box President Trump decided to take the plunge for a direct tête-à-tête with Supreme Leader Marshal Kim Jong-un. The world waited with bated breath, and expectations ran high.

The meeting went well as far as the personal chemistry between the two heads was concerned. They even managed a joint statement that made a mention of denuclearisation. The details of the process, however, were to be worked out at lower levels, where unfortunately nothing concrete could be achieved. To give the process another push, the two leaders met again in Hanoi in 2019. The meeting, however, ended abruptly, as differences over sequencing of sanctions removal and steps towards denuclearisation were found to be irreconcilable. Even though both leaders continued to express their admiration for each other and optimism for the bilateral relationship, 2019 yielded nothing. In any case, it appeared that President Trump had lost interest in the issue as other more pressing and immediate domestic and international concerns kept landing on his table fast and furiously.

The recently issued statement by North Korea now openly expresses a sense of disappointment with the Summits. It laments that over “not a short period of 732 days” since the first Summit, even a “slim ray of hope of peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula has faded away into a dark nightmare.” Therefore, “it is futile to continue maintaining” the relationship with President Trump. Expectedly, DPRK draws attention to the many steps that it had undertaken, such as total shutdown of its nuclear test site, return of US prisoners, non-conduct nuclear tests, and suspension of further testing of its inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), even though it had received nothing from the other side.

As US-DPRK relations nosedive, those between the two Koreas, too, have worsened over the last few months. Military hotlines between the two were severed by Pyongyang earlier in June. As this column was being written, news came in that North Korea had blown up the Inter-Korean building, the joint liaison office at Kaesong, which was symbolic of their cooperation. The step was reportedly taken to express anger with the propaganda war being allegedly waged from South Korea through balloons and leaflets carrying anti-regime messages.

With this, another short episode of attempted détente seems to have stalled. Having expressed its unhappiness and anger with both Washington and Seoul, Pyongyang’s message is loud and clear as voiced in its statement. It reportedly carries the endorsement of the Fourth Enlarged Meeting of the Seventh CMC of the Worker’s Party of Korea: the strategic goal and national strategy for nuclear development of the country is now to “build up more reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats from the US.”

Perhaps, having realised the limits of what President Trump can do in the last few months of his presidency, Pyongyang sees greater benefit in ramping up its strategic capability in order to strengthen its bargaining position for when the next occupant of the White House is ready for another round of negotiations. During this time, when US attention is sure to be elsewhere, North Korea has a safe period to improve its nuclear deterrent, including conducting more nuclear and missile tests if it feels the need. The fear of more sanctions that may follow any such move is allayed by the friendship DPRK enjoys with China, which in any case has been its saviour over the years. That backdoor has always been open for the regime, even if the sanctions may have caused suffering to the ordinary citizens.

Meanwhile, what should be a matter of concern for all, and particularly for India, is the possibility of leakage of nuclear material, technology, or equipment from DPRK. Reeling from the pandemic’s impact (Pyongyang has reported complete control over the virus though the claim cannot be substantiated in the absence of independent verification), suffering from the effects of sanctions, not allowing any international oversight on its nuclear activities, and making use of a distracted international community, DPRK may be tempted towards clandestine nuclear transfers to interested state or non-state actors. It may be recalled that it has been involved in such actions in the past with Pakistan and China.

So, even though both the US and DPRK appear to have disembarked from the train of summit diplomacy that seemed to be going nowhere, it is imperative that a close watch be maintained to obviate the possibility of Pyongyang embarking on a train of nuclear proliferation that would certainly lead to disaster.  


Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.