Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.03.12

Is Pyongyang slicing the salami too thin?

the japan times on March 5, 2019

The second U.S.-North Korea summit meeting in Hanoi was a fiasco and provided no relief for Japan. During U.S. President Donald Trump's trip to Vietnam, his former attorney Michael Cohen testified in Congress, calling the president as a racist, a con man and a cheat. Pyongyang sliced salami too thin for Trump to taste it. Pundits in Tokyo still wonder why this happened.

As a former Japanese diplomat, I have been marveling why many writers or experts in Tokyo were quoted as saying "No deal is better than a bad deal" or "Japan is quietly celebrating the collapse of the Hanoi summit deal." Woo, they don't seem to get it. Personally I don't give a damn about such short-sighted shallow analyses.

When it comes to U.S.-North Korea summit meetings, we need cold-eyed, historical, strategic and objective analyses. After the demise of the Soviet Union, going nuclear was the Kim dynasty's choice for survival. No matter how you define "complete denuclearization," it would be their last resort -- not their first offer in any negotiations.

The Korean Peninsula has a sad history of subordination. "Juche," a notorious ideology that implies the Koreans must be the master of their destiny, was a natural conclusion for Korean nationalists. With the rise of China and the United States wandering under Trump, they found a golden opportunity to finally be the master of their own.

U.S.-North Korea negotiations over the past 12 months must have been the best that the North and South Korean leaders could have imagined. The endgame, however, will not be promising, simply because the Koreans do not have enough power and influence to impose any conclusion onto their powerful neighbors. Unfortunately, such Korean attempts, including the latest one by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, are doomed to fail.

Based on the above assumptions, the following is my take on the outcome of the second summit meeting in Hanoi between the U.S. president and the chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party.

1. Who decided to walk out first, Trump or Kim?

North Korean negotiation tactics have been quite consistent and this time, unlike the last time in Singapore, Washington could not swallow it and walked out. Ironically, however, but for the bombshell congressional hearings by Trump's former personal lawyer, there must have been a chance of a "small deal" in Hanoi.

2. How much impact did Cohen's testimony have?

According to the liberal U.S. news media, the outcome was very negative to say the least. Cohen's public words about the president have already triggered a long series of congressional investigations. This is not another Watergate yet, but it is getting more and more similar to that.

3. Did Trump finally make the right decision?

He made the right judgment over U.S. domestic politics. He learned that any insufficient deal with North Korea could cause the situation to further deteriorate and damage his presidency, which is the only thing Trump has been interested in. It might have been easier for National Security Adviser John Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to persuade the president this time.

4. Why did North Korea slice the salami too thin?

Salami slicing has been a traditional negotiation style for Pyongyang. But this time it was almost clear that North Korean negotiators, including Kim, misread the state of American politics and underestimated the serious impact of Cohen's testimony on their negotiations with Trump.

5. Did the talks' collapse give Tokyo relief?

No, at least as far as I am concerned. Look, what will this "no deal" lead to? It will not guarantee any solution but will only accelerate the nuclearization process in North Korea. For Tokyo, there is no time for relief simply because it is just the lesser evil in the outcome of the Hanoi summit, which Japan must take very seriously.

6. Was Seoul disappointed by the result?

Most likely so, especially because the inter-Korean joint scenario that Moon wrote with Kim may eventually stall and so may the popularity of the South Korean president. Seoul, unfortunately, is not an independent variant in the game and does not have enough power to change the course of the negotiations.

7. Was China behind the conspiracy?

I don't buy conspiracy theories in this game. Beijing knows Pyongyang's dependency on China but will never trust North Korea. China, however, will aid Kim as long as this helps driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies in East Asia.

8. How will Moscow react to the diplomatic failure?

Moscow seems to be busy in the European and Middle Eastern theaters trying to beat the economic sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Russia, however, will never hesitate to intervene whenever things develop in the Korean Peninsula that are not to President Vladimir Putin's disadvantage.

9. What would happen next? Will diplomacy continue?

Nothing particularly new will follow the Hanoi summit. Successful diplomacy between the two countries is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, as well. Did anything change fundamentally since January 2018? As I hinted earlier, we are entering the new chapter of the nuclearization of North Korea, which started as far back as in the early 1990s.

All in all, we are doomed. I don't intend to sound too pessimistic but from a more cold-eyed, historical, strategic and objective perspective, a deal or no deal in Hanoi does not change my analysis that North Korea won't give up its nuclear weapons, the U.S. forces in Korea will eventually withdraw and China will dominate the peninsula.

This means it will be a matter of years, if not days, for North Korean to start deploying intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missiles targeting Tokyo and Beijing. This will, like in Europe in the 1980s, resume the debate on the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in East Asia.

As in the 1930s, we are entering once more an era of uncertainties where decisions by "intuition, coincidence and misjudgment" prevail again. Trump, Moon, Kim or Xi have already started making such irreversibly wrong decisions and they will most likely continue to do so. This is the East Asia in which Japan exists.