Talks with NK won’t come until after U.S. presidential election

Perhaps the biggest news out of Pyongyang in the last month or two is actually about a non-event. In early June, a North Korean spokesperson said that North Korea has no intention of staging a nuclear test in the near future. And indeed, a nuclear test was almost universally expected to take place soon after the missile launch that occurred in mid-April. It has not happened, and judging by what North Korean officials say, it is not going to happen in the next few months.

This is somewhat surprising, since earlier experience testifies that long-range missile launches in North Korea are normally accompanied by nuclear tests. This was the case in 2006 (a missile test was not made public at the time), as well as in 2009 when a launch of what was described as a ‘satellite’ in April was followed by a nuclear test in May.  This was expected to happen now as well.

There were signs that this was indeed going to happen. Leaked satellite images showed that some suspicious activities took place at a likely nuclear test site. And North Korean officials, who now deny the existence of such a plan, in late April dropped a number of hints to the effect that a nuclear test was imminent.

It appears as if the ongoing preparations for a nuclear test were halted at the last minute, the reasons for this are unlikely to be known in the near future. Some hypothesis that it was a result of unusually strong pressure from China, whilst others speculate that North Korean engineers might have encountered some unforeseen technical problems.

However the actual reasons why the expected test was cancelled (or at least postponed) are not all that important. It seems more important that the North Korean government issued a statement to the effect that there would be no nuclear test. This unusual frankness can be interpreted in only one way: the North Korean government now is indicating that Pyongyang is not in its peace-loving mood and hence would like to restart negotiations with interested foreign parties – above all, the United States. Had North Korean strategists wanted to keep tensions high, they would have had no reason to make public their internal decisions regarding the timing of the next big bang.

But if this is indeed the case, it seems that North Korean policy planners are set to be disappointed. No serious talks are likely to take place until well after the coming US presidential elections: and it is above the North Koreans themselves who are to blame for this situation.

On February 29th, North Korea and the United States signed the so-called ‘leap-day agreement’. According to the deal, the US promised to ship 240,000 tons of food aid free of charge to North Korea (to be delivered in 12 monthly installments). In exchange, the North promised that they would not conduct nuclear and missile tests.

This agreement held for only two weeks, and in mid-March, North Korea made known that it would celebrate the coming 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the dynasty founder, by launching what was described as a “peaceful space research satellite” (which is, of course, 95 percent indistinguishable from a long-range missile).

This was a rather strange decision which might have reflected some problems with policy planning in Pyongyang. North Korea could have easily postponed negotiations until, say, this summer and get free food aid after having attempted a long-range missile test. It was just a question of getting the order right, but for some reason it was not done and this decision had a negative impact on US-North Korean relations. Now, even more so than before, North Koreans are (justifiably) seen as untrustworthy deal-breakers. In this situation, it has become all but impossible to argue in favour of more engagement.

Things in the US are further complicated by electoral politics. This is an election year and the incumbent president does not want to invite too much criticism on national security issues from Republicans. There is little doubt that such a critique would certainly follow any pre-election deal with the North. Washington would probably be less risk-averse, had it been able to present such a deal as a successful breakthrough. But the ignominious and embarrassingly quick collapse of the ‘leap-day agreement’ has put into stark relief the fact that deals with North Korea can too often become a serious political liability.

Admittedly, it has been known in the state department for some time, especially after the failure of Christopher Hill, who, in 2006-8, gambled on a deal with Pyongyang. The deal failed, Pyongyang staged another nuclear test and Ambassador Hill’s career was seriously damaged as a result. This lesson was learnt by pretty much everyone who matters in Washington. So, most people are likely to remain deaf to peaceful overtures which have seemingly begun to emanate from Pyongyang.

This might change eventually, since many people in Washington still see talks with North Korea as a way to keep things from deteriorating even further – and they might be right. However, their voices are unlikely to be heard until the next year when the presidential elections will be behind Washington.
All this seems to be just another debacle in diplomatic dealing with North Korea; just another episode in an unending soap opera of “nuclear talks”.

But this might indicate something more important, which is not fully appreciated in Pyongyang; after every broken promise, the US and, broadly speaking, the international community at large is increasingly less enthusiastic about entering into yet another deal with North Korea. Democracies, with their habit of changing the people in charge every few years, might be slow to learn, but they get it in the end.

It seems that the general mood in Washington now is one of increasing cynicism and scepticism. For North Korean diplomats this is a bad sign. For some two decades the North Korean strategists have periodically made and reneged upon deals with the outside world with near impunity. However, with every passing year and newly broken promise, it has become an increasingly difficult act to keep up. In this new situation, the old patterns are becoming increasingly unsustainable.

One Response to Talks with NK won’t come until after U.S. presidential election

  1. Pingback: 더이상 북한과의 거래는 없다 « All « 아시아엔

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