Whatever the reasons for the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea talks, both sides have kept alive hopes for their revival
The much awaited Hanoi summit (February 27-28) between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended abruptly.
A working lunch and the signing ceremony were cancelled, leading to speculation that the talks had collapsed. This may be a premature conclusion. Mr. Trump, 72, has shown, time and again, that while he may be a novice at nuclear negotiations, he is a master of ‘The Art of the Deal’ and a reality TV star. For him, summitry is about political timing. Mr Kim, though less than half Mr. Trump’s age seems to have a natural knack for it too. The Trump–Kim bromance is like a three act opera and after two acts (Singapore in June 2018 and Hanoi), this is the Intermission, with a final act yet to unfold.
Suspense about Singapore
Remember the suspense before Act I, which took place despite all odds.
There was initial optimism when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit last May to Pyongyang, returning successfully with three U.S. detainees.
Days later, National Security Adviser John Bolton bunged a spanner in the works by proposing the “Libyan model” for North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea reacted strongly with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye-gwan indicating that it would be forced to reconsider the summit if the U.S. insisted on driving it into a corner. Mr. Trump backtracked, released the letter he had sent to Mr. Kim, expressing regret about the delay and adding that he was still hopeful. He also publicly distanced himself from Mr. Bolton’s remarks by pointing out that what he wanted with North Korea was ‘a deal’. South Korean President Moon Jae-in stepped in, visiting Washington in May and, on his return, meeting Mr. Kim at Panmunjom to restore calm. By the end of the month, the vice-chairman of the central committee, Gen. Kim Yong-chol, was in the U.S. meeting Mr. Pompeo and carrying a personal letter from Mr. Kim to Mr. Trump. And the June summit was restored!
While the summit resulted in a joint statement holding out tantalizing prospects of establishing a new period of U.S.-North Korea relations, building a lasting and robust peace on the Korean peninsula and Mr. Kim reaffirming his firm commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, what was striking was the growing trust and respect between the two leaders. An unexpected personal chemistry had been established.
Setting the stage for Hanoi
Fast forward to Hanoi, Act II. Expectations were set high. Stephen Biegun, appointed Special Representative for North Korea last year, had hinted that forward movement on ending the ‘war’ was possible. The 1950-53 Korean War, which led to the division of the peninsula and claimed nearly three million lives, was paused with the 1953 Armistice Agreement.
For North Korea, any move towards formalizing peace is a step towards regime legitimacy. While a formal peace treaty would require U.S. Senate ratification, political steps towards normalization would not.
North Korea expected some acknowledgement of its continuing restraint with regard to testing and unilateral moves hinting at closing down some test sites.
Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim were aware that differences about ‘denuclearization’ persisted.
For North Korea, it means ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’, North Korea dismantling its facilities and giving up its arsenal to go hand in hand with a permanent peace that removes the U.S. military threat and normalization.
For the U.S., ‘denuclearization’ is frontend loaded, implying complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament that requires North Korea to bring nuclear military activity to a halt, make a full declaration and subject itself to international verification, before sanctions are lifted.
Mr. Trump had indicated that he was happy about the continued ban on nuclear and missile testing and not in a hurry. However, the pitch was queered by intelligence reports surfacing that in addition to the principal nuclear facility (Yongbyon), North Korea had built another uranium enrichment facility at Kangson. It put a question mark on Mr Kim’s commitment to ‘denuclearisation’. Another report indicated that though the Punggye-ri test site was shut, continued plutonium production and uranium enrichment during the last 12 months would have enabled North Korea to add up to seven devices to its existing arsenal estimated at 30 devices.
These disclosures diminished the value of North Korea’s offer of closing Yongbyon, which houses reactors (one for plutonium production and the older one possibly for tritium) in addition to an enrichment facility. Mr. Trump had accepted the idea of a road map but instead of working out the details, he prefers to rely on his sense of political timing to conclude a successful deal. Further, there was a growing perception that he was in too much of a hurry, which meant that any agreement would be modest and likely be labelled a bad deal by the non-proliferation hardliners. He cleverly chose ‘no deal’ to a ‘bad deal’ — and the curtain came down on Act II.
It seems the U.S. demanded more than Yongbyon, which was more than North was willing to give. Mr. Trump said, “It was all about sanctions. They wanted the sanctions lifted in its entirety and we couldn’t do that. Sometimes, you have to walk and this was one of those times.” His regret was evident when he added, “When we walked away, it was a very friendly walk.” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho claimed they had “demanded only partial sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling Yongbyon”. Whatever the reasons, reactions on both sides have been restrained. A return to the rhetoric of ‘fire and fury’ therefore seems unlikely.
Preparing for Act III
Right now, the mantra in Washington is that no deal is better than a bad deal. Yet, realization will soon dawn that the current situation only permits North Korea’s stockpile to grow as there is zero likelihood for Chinese and Russian support for further tightening of sanctions. There are no plans for a third summit though Mr. Trump said that he “remained optimistic about a positive future outcome”, adding, “there is a warmth that we have and I hope that stays.” Mr. Pompeo acknowledged “real progress” and said the “U.S. is ready to get back to the table to continue the talks”.
It is likely that during this Intermission, South Korea will step up its diplomacy with both Washington and Pyongyang. Mr. Moon has played a low-key but critical role in nurturing the process. Domestically, he has staked a lot, having had three meetings with Mr. Kim last year, including one in Pyongyang.
Since last May, both sides have refrained from hostile activities and propaganda, the demilitarized zone (DMZ), is peaceful, landmines have been removed and some maritime confidence-building measures put in place. With economic troubles at home and hardliners in Seoul accusing him of being over-optimistic and naive, he is vulnerable. The South Korean Constitution only provides one term for the President and Mr. Moon is confident about the legacy he wants to leave behind.
More has been achieved during the last year since the collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002 when U.S. President George W. Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil” speech.
Between then and 2017, North Korea carried out six nuclear tests, including one believed to be a fusion device, and over a 100 missile tests, demonstrating intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
Mr. Moon’s goal is to register sufficient progress on both ‘normalization’ and the ‘denuclearization’ tracks so that the process becomes irreversible. Such a breakthrough needs a top-led process.
And so an Act III is likely. The hardliners will eventually recognize virtue in a step-by-step process as long as it is irreversible.
A new stage will have to be found, Bangkok, even Hong Kong if China cooperates. But the cast is willing. After all, it is the blossoming of a beautiful relationship.
Fifty years apart, the story of two OIC fiascos
Reaching out to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is morally wrong and politically futile
India’s most recent encounter with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) bears an uncanny resemblance to India’s failed attempt to gain entry to the inaugural session of the same grouping held in Rabat, Morocco, in 1969 and for much the same reasons.
In the earlier episode New Delhi lobbied fiercely to wangle an invitation to the meeting. However, on Pakistan’s insistence the invitation that had been extended was withdrawn and India was denied membership of the OIC despite its insistence that as the country with the third largest Muslim population in the world it deserved a seat at the “Islamic” table.
Contrary to secularism
I remember writing an oped at the time that New Delhi’s bid for membership of the OIC was both morally wrong and politically futile. As a country whose foundational philosophy was based on secularism, it was inappropriate for India to join an organization whose defining criterion was shared religious identity. In India’s case this applied to all organisations that used religious criteria to define themselves, whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist.
Further, since India’s membership of the OIC would be perceived as a powerful refutation of the basis on which Pakistan was created, it was bound to object stridently to India’s induction into the organisation. Pakistan had great leverage with the conservative Arab monarchies for ideological reasons and because of the fact that its military was willing to provide the Arab monarchies with well-trained soldiers for hire that the latter needed to protect their insecure regimes.
Pakistan at that time also had close relations with Iran and Turkey with whom it shared membership of CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation, formerly the Baghdad Pact) and an anti-Soviet and pro-U.S. orientation.
Consequently, Islamabad had much greater clout within OIC circles than did New Delhi and was in a position to thwart Indian attempts to attain OIC membership. As it turned out, my prediction came true. New Delhi’s attempt to gain OIC membership led to unnecessary humiliation that could have been avoided had South Block acted with greater forethought.
The situation today is both different and similar to 1969, and this was clearly reflected in India’s latest experience with the OIC. In an apparent gesture of goodwill, the organisers of the OIC Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi, which in effect meant the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia invited External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as the guest of honour and keynote speaker despite Pakistan’s objections. This was both a reflection of India’s growing economic and political stature internationally and the desire on the part of the Gulf monarchies to cultivate New Delhi in order to take advantage of the opportunities provided by India’s expanding economy and its technologically skilled workforce.
A New Twist
However, this is where the difference between 1969 and 2019 ends and the similarities kick in. The impact of Ms. Swaraj’s speech, especially her denunciation of terrorism that was clearly aimed at Pakistan, was more than neutralized by a number of events that followed her address.
First, the Abu Dhabi declaration issued at the end of the meeting did not contain even a simple expression of thanks to the Indian External Affairs Minister for addressing the plenary session of the assembly. Furthermore, it failed to mention the fact that Ms. Swaraj was the guest of honour at the meeting and delivered the keynote speech. This omission was very glaring in view of the fact that the document mentioned all sorts of unimportant issues, such as the UAE hosting the 2020 Expo in Dubai.
Second, to add insult to injury, the document’s only reference to the IndiaPakistan stand-off stated that the OIC welcomes the “positive initiative undertaken by the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan to hand over the Indian pilot as a gesture of goodwill to de-escalate tensions in the region”.
The Pakistani “initiative” was given a very positive twist by decontextualizing it totally. There was not even an implicit reference to the primary reason that led to the most recent India-Pakistan conflagration, namely, Pakistani support for terrorism as witnessed most dramatically by the attack in Pulwama that killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel.
Third, what was even more galling from the Indian perspective was the resolution on Kashmir that accompanied the Abu Dhabi declaration. This included the phrase “Indian terrorism in Kashmir” while condemning what it called “atrocities and human rights violations” in the State. It is clear from this sequence of events and the wording of the documents that emanated from the OIC meeting that despite the invitation to Ms. Swaraj, the leopard has not changed its spots and that Pakistani influence within the organisation has diminished only marginally.
Once again, the Ministry of External Affairs, instead of prematurely celebrating the invitation to Ms. Swaraj to address the Abu Dhabi conference, should have thought long and hard before advising the Minister to accept the invitation.
It was particularly incumbent upon the Ministry of External Affairs to do so in light of the resolutions passed by the OIC over the years regarding Kashmir and India-Pakistan issues which had always favoured the Pakistani point of view.
It appears from hindsight that the External Affairs Minister’s participation in the OIC Foreign Ministers’ conclave, like the Indian attempt to gain admission into the Rabat conference in 1969, was nothing short of an avoidable fiasco.