North Korea-U.S. Summit 2.0: negotiations continue

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Originally planned as a two-day event, the most recent summit between the U.S. and North Korea ended abruptly ahead of schedule, with President Trump claiming that the talks had run aground due to President Kim Jong-Un’s unreasonable demands to lift all current economic sanctions in exchange for closing the Yongbyon nuclear facility, a key research and production site. This is the second meeting between Trump and Kim, a follow up to their first summit in Singapore, which was the first time a sitting U.S. president had met in person with a North Korean leader.

At the outset, the summit seemed promising. Unlike past presidents, Trump appears to have a good rapport with Kim, with the two frequently exchanging letters and showering each other with praise. Indeed, each summit has been marked with excessive pageantry and constant flattery, each leader playing to the other’s ego and projecting an image of friendship and collaboration that feels worlds apart from the inflammatory rhetoric of the past.

Although it is worrying that the current president is so willing to trust and defend dictators and autocrats (Trump has similarly espoused his closeness with Russian president Vladimir Putin), there were hopes that the apparent camaraderie between two of the most aggressive leaders in the world would lead to a deal that not only tackled the complicated issue of denuclearization, but would also end the Korean War and help ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. There was also a marked shift in Kim's priorities for his nation: while he previously focused on reinforcing North Korea’s nuclear and military power, he is now looking towards the future, hoping to bring his country back onto the world stage and earn the respect of the international community. After all, remaining an isolated country in the 21st century is a disadvantage, and Kim realizes that modern prosperity is inextricably linked to globalization.

In the end, little progress was made and the summit failed to live up to the hype, although this is hardly surprising. Lifting all economic sanctions in exchange for the shutdown of one nuclear facility is a deal that decidedly favored North Korea, since the nation possesses other research centers and a stockpile of missiles and bombs, products of its long-running nuclear program. To accept the deal would have shifted the balance of power and allowed North Korea to increase in power and influence, while continuing to maintain its arsenal. North Korean officials contest Trump’s claims, saying that the demands were not nearly as extreme, but regardless of whether the president was exaggerating, conceding one nuclear center out of many for the removal of sanctions is an unfair bargain. In that sense, walking away is still better than a concession.

The path moving forward with North Korea is riddled with uncertainty, as a second inconclusive summit has damaged the relationship between the two nations. While Trump continues to remain enthusiastic about his ties with Kim, claiming that the two remained very good friends and allies, Kim claims that he has lost some of his desire to negotiate with the U.S., and that if a deal cannot be reached, he will seek other avenues that circumvent Washington entirely.

How future negotiations will play out remains to be seen, but one thing that the U.S. needs to keep in mind is that they do not have the upper hand in this situation. The fact that Kim is willing to negotiate at all is evidence that North Korea has already solidified its nuclear power, so advancing their weaponry is no longer the top priority. Because of the country’s past conduct, there is not much that past U.S. administrations and the international community could have done beyond sanctions, as Kim uses the threat of nuclear war to ensure that he retains his position of power, well aware that no one would be willing to spark catastrophic annihilation.

A key part of North Korea’s continued survival is its support from China, which provides the country with food and fuel, acting as their biggest trade partner. While China has historically supported North Korea’s regimes, they have gradually shifted towards condemnation, seeing the country’s nuclear development as a threat to peace. Yet despite these concerns, the two countries continue to maintain close economic ties, in effect enabling North Korea’s continued defiance of international accords, despite the heavy sanctions.

America’s relationship with China is a complicated one given the ongoing trade-war, which hurts the possibility of collaboration between the two nations. While China is one of the biggest economic competitors to the U.S. and has done questionable things in the past, it and North Korea might have to consider a joint approach to try to denuclearize North Korea. By disconnecting North Korea from its closest ally and supporter, it is conceivable that the impoverished country would be more receptive to outside demands. Of course, China is unlikely to stop trade with North Korea, but it has become clear that direct U.S. confrontation with North Korea is unlikely to resolve the problem, and international rebukes are similarly ineffective; denuclearizing North Korea and stabilizing the peninsula is a complex problem that requires new and multilateral solutions.

Hopefully, negotiation and communication between the U.S. and North Korea will continue, as nothing’s worse than letting evil fester in darkness. If the Trump administration wishes to make any significant headway, they need to rethink their strategy and draw on the support of other nations to present a united and tangible front. International condemnation and American intervention have not worked in the past and likely will not work in the future: there needs to be a different approach if we wish to resolve one of the most dangerous and complicated imbroglios in foreign policy.