There has been little evidence of progress in the denuclearization process since the Singapore Summit in June 2018. On the contrary, we have seen to give up a either directly to the US or a third country. At the same time, Pyongyang has been engaged in a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China and high-level delegations from Seoul.
The third Inter-Korean Summit between South Korea President Moon Jae-in and North Korea leader Kim Jung-un in Pyongyang from September 18-20 had the difficult task of attempting to make the ambiguous more concrete through a series of tangible commitments by the North to convey to Washington and other stakeholders that the Kim regime is indeed process.
The outcome of the Summit was mixed. Kim promised to dismantle a missile test site — under the eye of international inspectors — and start the process of scuttling North Korea’s main Yongbyon nuclear production site. Kim also made a commitment to visit Seoul as soon as possible. The Summit ending with the so-called Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 made the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain.”
We are left with a plethora of questions when it comes to the real take-homes of the Summit. Is North Korea genuine in its desire to denuclearize? What are the calculations behind Kim’s pledge to dismantle missile testing sites and the Yongbyon nuclear production site?
Kim’s calculation may be that US President Donald Trump’s unorthodox background and inclination to make deals may be the opportunity his regime was looking for to sign a peace treaty, end hostilities, and take steps to denuclearize while engaging in an . While this may be true, the window of opportunity to achieve an agreement with the Trump administration maybe be closing rapidly as the suggest the that House of Representatives may turn Democratic and that the Democrats may pick up more seats in the Senate.
An unfavorable outcome in the mid-term elections for Trump and the GOP indicates that there will be on what and how the Trump administration governs and engages in foreign policy. He may also face an impeachment crisis which will complicate any push towards denuclearization. This has implications for the Kim regime as post mid-terms, President Trump may be in a weaker position politically. This will likely be leveraged by the Kim regime to extract a maximum number of concessions from the US and stakeholders to pursue economic development and retain his strategic nuclear deterrent.
At least three scenarios are possible. First, to accrue valuable political capital, a weakened Trump may rush to secure a deal with the Kim regime focusing on nuclear-tipped ICBMs in exchange for a peace treaty. This solution would remove the nuclear weapons question from the US standpoint, but it would leave allies in the region, in particular of a hostile North Korea with a track record of and waters surrounding Japan. What is more, the continued possession of short and mid-range missiles, submarine launch systems and an unaccounted for would certainly raise concern in Tokyo, leading policy makers to rethink their stance on which gives up the right to use military force. The to be mounted on the F-35A stealth fighter is emblematic of changes ahead in Japan’s security thinking if the North Korean threat continues to mount.
The Kim regime would welcome this kind of deal as it would allow them to argue that US troops on the peninsula would no longer be necessary as the US and DPRK have reached a peace agreement. Beijing would welcome any discussions that encouraged the from the peninsula as it would weaken the US’s networked alliance structure in the region and hamper any efforts to contain China.
What is clear is that inter-Korean relations and the denuclearization of North Korea will be impacted by the outcome of the mid-term elections in the US. Pyongyang understands this and it will not make any further commitments until the outcome of the mid-term elections is certain.
While Beijing would welcome the withdrawal, alarm bells would be sounded in Tokyo as US troops in South Korea not only serve to protect South Korea but Japan as well. Significantly, the from South Korea would weaken the US’s overall security posture in the region, making it increasingly difficult for Japan and the US to push back against in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and in the Indo-Pacific.
In a second scenario, Trump may shift from incremental diplomacy run by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo back to military solutions to denuclearize North Korea that were being considered prior the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. This 180° turn would not be out of character for the President and it could be strategically the distraction he needs to survive a Democratic House and possible. While turning up the military pressure on Pyongyang may increase the risk for conflict — accidental or intentional — it also has a huge payoff for Trump politically. It would be a strong demonstration of his leadership and determination to denuclearize North Korea and it could pressure Pyongyang to make tangible commitments to denuclearize. Simultaneously, the President could push back against the Democrats’ impeachment process and likely political obstructionism by stressing that it would be unpatriotic to hamper a sitting President while the nation’s national security is at risk.
The problem with this scenario is obvious. Stepped up military pressure could cascade into an uncontrolled conflict that would put Seoul and possibility Tokyo at risk from as well as short and mid-range missile systems.
There are other questions about the feasibility of this strategy in light of North Korea’s diplomatic outreach in 2018. With three meetings with Xi, summits with Moon and Trump, and South Korea’s , Trump would face considerable pushback from the geopolitical rivals China and Russia as well as the allies South Korea and Japan.
In the wake of the likely negative outcome in the US midterms for President Trump, the third possibility is for North Korea to return to its of parallel development of nuclear weapons capabilities and economic development. In this case, having achieved its strategic nuclear deterrent, Pyongyang can place more resources in economic development while replicating Pakistan and India by making their nuclear program much less conspicuous.
Less provocative behavior by Pyongyang on the nuclear front would be welcomed by Seoul and Beijing and contribute to the shift in mindset that both China and South Korea could live with a nuclear North Korea. China already has three nuclear neighbors and arguably a fourth would not be such a bitter pill to swallow, especially if relations are stable and cordial. South Korea on the other hand would need some convincing — however, deepening dialogue, exchanges, and infrastructure links as proposed by the Moon administration would likely contribute to building confidence in North-South relations.
Pyongyang could make this scenario more palatable to Japan and the US by stressing that its nuclear weapons are part of a strategic nuclear deterrent while at the same time making commitments to non-proliferation. While this would leave the US vulnerable to ICBMs from North Korea, it might be sufficient to reduce hostilities to levels that allow for dialogue and diplomacy. This would not be an ideal outcome for Japan, as Pyongyang would retain weapons systems that can reach Japan.
What is clear is that inter-Korean relations and the denuclearization of North Korea will be impacted by the outcome of the mid-term elections in the US. Pyongyang understands this and it will not make any further commitments until the outcome of the mid-term elections is certain. Inter-Korean relations will deepen and broaden going forward but the prospects for the denuclearization of North Korea are growing more obscure despite the optics of the Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang.