Why This Time is Different: The North Korea Crisis and New Zealand’s Interests

Author: Steff, R.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2020

the “highest level of hardline countermeasures in history”, and called Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard.”55 And while Trump had suggested he could meet North Korea’s leader under the right circumstances, it was still a surprise (even to the South Korean officials who brought it up with him) when, in March 2018, Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong-Un.

The summit took place on 12 June 2018 in Singapore. It concluded by issuing a joint statement that called for new relations, a commitment by President Trump to providing security guarantees for North Korea, North Korea ‘reaffirming’ a commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula (through mutual confidence building); recovery of soldiers’ remains from the Korean War, and a call for follow-up negotiations.56 Many found the document underwhelming, declaring that Kim had ‘won’ the summit as it did not commit Pyongyang to Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID), and there were no concrete technical details for implementing the agreements. Some of these criticisms are misplaced. For a start, simply mentioning CVID in a joint document does not make it happen, and given the history between the DPRK and US, perceived betrayal even by the DPRK’s erstwhile allies, and North Korea’s understandable concern that disarming could leave them vulnerable to future US regime change efforts (as the example of Libya attests), an agreement to rapidly disarm was never likely. Instead a long-term, painstaking and incremental process was always the more likely course of action, with tit-for-tat confidence building efforts proving central to any diplomatic process. Critics also missed the fact that summits are not a place where states ‘win’ or ‘lose’ (a summit is not a conflict). Nor are they a venue where leaders sit down to hammer out the minutiae of technical policy issues or the day-to-day steps that will be taken to get to the end point (which are probably not known to either side yet). Rather such summits exist for dialogue at a high level to establish a political understanding for a process to begin.

The tenor of relations have oscillated. For example Trump called off Secretary Pompeo’s August 2018 trip to Pyongyang, and then cut short a summit in Hanoi between Trump and Kim in February 2019. This was followed by a brief meeting on 30 June 2019, when Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to stand on North Korean soil when he entered the Korean Demilitarized Zone and which culminated in a three-way meeting between Trump, Kim and ROK President Moon Jae-in (meetings between senior officials have also continued).57 Both sides have shown some restraint that suggest a cycle of confidence-building measures could take hold. For example, the ROK and US decided in March 2019 to terminate their annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military drills and in the same month the IAEA announced that the DPRK had not operated its Yongbyon 5MW(e) reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium since early December 2018.58 And while an escalatory phase could be imminent, given Kim announced on 1 January 2020 that he was ending his nation’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and international ballistic missile testing, no