North Korea's missile threat shows we need to take Trump's vanity out of the peace talks
The bizarre ritual of this week's elections, and reports of sanctions dodging, show that it's business as usual for Kim Jong-un
Two weeks ago, the world was anxiously waiting for Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to sign a peace declaration at their hyped summit in Vietnam. But a divide over a denuclearisation deal emerged, talks collapsed, both departed early and the world was left wondering what would come next.
Well maybe now we know. North Korea’s vice foreign minister Choe Sun-hui has told diplomats that the US missed "a golden opportunity" in Hanoi, and that her country could now resume missile and nuclear testing.–
It seems unlikely that Trump will rush to wine and dine Kim again in the hope of earning himself a Nobel Peace Prize. In the days that followed the Vietnam summit, new evidence regarding the DPRK’s own development and policy choices appear to show that things are pretty much business as usual in Pyongyang.
First, we had the bizarre ritual of the North Korean elections. Citizens were called to polling stations last Sunday to elect deputies and fill the 687 seats available at the Supreme People’s Assembly. The turnout announced by state media was a record high, with more than 99.7% of the population having voted (the remaining 0.03% were excused for special reasons such as being abroad for work).
The elections are, of course, a futile attempt at democracy. The candidates are pre-selected and do not run against any opponent. The elections simply provide the useful illusion of a participatory political process, and is an opportunity for fairs and festivals that provide a morsel of entertainment and appeasement for the Korean masses.
From afar, we receive images of a North Korea that appears organised and in control of its political process, while the actual inner workings of party dynamics and hierarchy remain largely beyond our grasp.
Second, we have seen satellite images – often the only clues we have to interpret some of the DPRK’s actions – that are indicative of potential activities at missile launch sites.
In itself, this is not necessarily a worry. Military installations require maintenance, and it it is also likely that promises made to the US about refraining from further missile launches, were understood within the context of sustained dialogue.
No sovereign country would forfeit its access to and use of its capabilities if it felt threatened. It was tempting, for a while, to imagine North Korea renouncing all its militaristic pursuits because of encouraging engagement with both South Korea and the US, but surely history has taught us to be cautious?
Of more concern, perhaps, has been the release of a new UN panel of experts on North Korea. This presented fresh evidence on how the DPRK attempts to evade trade sanctions. We know from past cases that the DPRK has used creative flagging in order to continue to operate its cargo vessels off Somalia, for example, or that illicit materials such as tanks and jet fighters have often found their way at the bottom of ships, hidden under seemingly unsuspecting rice cargo.
In light of the fresh round of trade sanctions imposed in 2017, the DPRK’s trade routes are almost paralysed and subject to extreme scrutiny. That Pyongyang might be engaging in at-sea, ship-to-ship goods transfers, or other illegal activities should not really come as a surprise.
The UN security council resolutions have, since they were first imposed in 2006, created a sanction net that has narrowed down from specific military trade to just about all aspects of the North Korean economy, including preventing workers from earning wages abroad on behalf of the regime, and blocking the DPRK from accessing the international banking system.
But while sanctions might have slowed down some of the DPRK’s military development, they have not led to regime collapse, largely because the North Korean regime has allowed for a parallel, market economy to slowly develop and still engages in trade activities with international partners (such as in Africa) and via illegal means.
What all these events tell us is that in the wake of the Vietnam summit, Kim Jong-un has adopted a “business-as-usual” attitude. His regime simply does not appear to be under threat, and has even been gifted the optics of a global red carpet summit by the US for the second time in a year.
The DPRK is also avoiding putting all its eggs in one basket when it comes to security: while engaging with the US means committing to a potential reduction of weapons, it does not mean that the leadership will follow Washington’s lead blindly. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons provide vital support to the regime’s strategy.
First they are clearly a deterrent in case of foreign military attack. Second, they represent a means to motivate and galvanise the Korean population to support the regime and carry on working to satisfy it (even more so now that Kim has been treated as an equal on the world stage). Third, they represent a potential means to make money, either via brinkmanship or by selling the technology.
They are also a means to North Korea’s principal end: the removal of the stringent sanctions put in place in 2017. This is a dangerous game, given that the DPRK has apparently managed to produce a viable weapons programme while being subject to a certain number of sanctions already.
We therefore find ourselves in a conundrum. How do we engage with North Korea to steer its regime down a different path without relaxing sanctions that end up restricting the potential for that change?
The answer might be found in the restarting of bilateral ties with South Korea, step by step, in order to steadily build confidence, rather than chasing an untenable and unattainable grand bargain that aims to solve all Korean tensions at once to the aggrandisement of the president of the United States. Repositioning the North Korea problem as one for the Korean peninsula and all the Korean people (as opposed to a DPRK-US affair), might yield some less flashy, but more tangible progress.
Virginie Grzelczyk is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University