Haggard has written extensively on the political economy of North Korea with Marcus Noland, including “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform” (2007) and “Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea” (2011) and co-authors the “North Korea: Witness to Transformation” blog at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Haggard is the current editor of the Journal of East Asian Studies and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Photo and biography courtesy of Professor Stephan Haggard and the School of Global Policy & Strategy.
Earlier this month, the United States and North Korea returned briefly to the negotiating table in Stockholm, eight months after the previous round of talks ended in Hanoi. What makes the talks in Stockholm noteworthy?
To understand how these denuclearization processes work, particularly under Trump, you have to distinguish between three levels of diplomatic interchange. First there are the summits. No one believes that summits can actually produce detailed plans of action for the parties involved. The summits either finalize something agreed to on lower levels or they move a process forward with the anticipation that detailed negotiations are going to take some time to unfold. There is an ongoing question as to whether there is going to be a third summit because the North Koreans seemed to want one; they would prefer to deal with Trump at that level. But recently, Pyongyang has called a third summit into doubt.
Second there are high-level talks, the type of talks that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been engaged in. These are designed to set more detailed parameters for the negotiations. I think of these as “negotiations on the negotiations,” such as discussions about what the agenda is going to be, what the broad goals are, and a possible common set of objecti
Finally you have working level talks. Any denuclearization agreement rests on complicated technical questions. For example, if you wanted to dismantle or close Yongbyon, there are a whole set of issues that need to be negotiated at the working level. Which buildings and activities are affected, who will be responsible for inspections, and so on.
If you look at the processes involving these three levels of negotiations, what strikes me about the North Koreans is that they have been very reluctant to engage in the third level of detailed talks. That exercise has been spearheaded since late 2017 by the United States Special Representative for North Korea, Steve Biegun. Biegun has been working to get these more detailed talks underway, but the North Koreans have been highly resistant. In Stockholm, it was clear that the North believed the United States had not brought anything new to the table, and stonewalled the talks. They implicitly threatened to go back to testing unless the Trump administration made new offers by the end of the year. Of course the North has been testing short range missiles recently, but the testing implied here would likely be something the US finds more threatening.
In Stockholm, did either party enter into the negotiations with a different negotiating position than in the previous talks in Hanoi?
If you look at what Biegun has said, he has made a quite essential compromise; essentially the US understands that the process is going to have to move incrementally. For the US, that seems like an important concession. But we haven’t seen in the public domain what that incrementalism would look like in terms of what the US is giving up. But we are clearly not going to get a grand catch-all agreement that will do everything all at once. The steps the US is willing to take still remain relatively modest, however. Moreover, it is not even clear what those steps are, and whether they touch on the main thing the North Korean's are interested in, which is sanctions relief.
What kind of outcome could the US and the DPRK have expected if the conference had gone more successfully? What were the primary expectations of each side going into the talks in Stockholm?
On the North’'s side, it’s pretty much what they said in Hanoi. They would like to see significant multilateral sanctions relief, and there are good reasons for the United States not to give them that. But there are alternative ways sanctions relief might be granted to the North Koreans, for example by allowing the South Koreans more latitude to engage with the North. The United States had two objectives going into Stockholm, again reading through the lines as this is not in the public domain. First is some discussion of a plan for freezing Yongbyon, and second, some kind of road-map for the negotiations. Both of those issues fall between the working level and high level talks. Only over time will we get to the objective of complete dismantlement. The North Koreans, either for strategic reasons, bargaining reasons, or tactical reasons, decided to walk away from the talks. The talks took place, but nothing came out of it.
The lead North Korean negotiator, Kim Myong-gil, accused the United States of arriving “empty-handed” and claimed the US “brought nothing” to the negotiations. Was this characterization accurate? If so, why do you think the talks only lasted for 8 1⁄2 hours?
No one knows exactly what the US brought, and whether it was new or not. But Biegun had already talked about an incremental strategy. And remember, a negotiation is also about listening to your adversary and figuring out what points of give they might have. It’s hard to know what the North Koreans realistically might have expected from the United States, although the Hanoi summit was a pretty good indicator that the Trump administration was not going to go to the UN Security Council and roll back their resolutions. Once you do that, it becomes very difficult if the North Koreans believe they can eliminate the sanctions.
There is wisdom in being cautious about rolling back multilateral sanctions. I should emphasize the nature of these sanctions; they are UN Security Council resolutions, which means they have been agreed to by China, which has formal veto power. If you go back after taking these resolutions apart, then you have to rebuild the coalition that put them in place, a difficult ask. Whether the Chinese are actually enforcing those sanctions is a separate question, but I don't think you should wind back the multilateral framework. Instead, granting some temporary sanctions relief would be a better option in exchange for concessions. Biegun’s account of Hanoi suggested that the North Koreans came to Hanoi willing to do something about Yongbyon, but interestingly, they did not have their technical team there to engage in those negotiations. It seems like they do not have any interest in these type of negotiations at all.
The DPRK’s Vice Minister of the People's Armed Forces called on the US and South Korea Monday to bring new solutions to the table, while also accusing South Korea of “double-dealing” with the US. Do you believe the DPRK is interested in finding a solution to the conflict, or, is North Korea simply stalling by placing the onus on the US and South Korea?
Negotiations are dynamic, so you don’t always know exactly what you will be doing, as your actions depend on what kind of response you get. For example, Kim Jong Un always thought that he could peel South Korean President Moon Jae In away from the United States in order for him to make concessions independently from the US. But the North Koreans have learned they cannot get those types of concessions from the South, which lead to a tougher and more hostile posture from the North, for example with respect to Mount Kumgang.
But there is also frustration that Moon Jae In is continually dissed by the president of the United States, and seemingly treated worse that Kim Jong Un. There are tensions in Seoul over this poor treatment of an ally, as the alliance issues are complicating Moon's ability to meet some of his political objectives vis-à-vis the North. Trump is asked to pay more for the alliance, but has gotten very little out of the Trump summit initiatives.
There's also evidence that the North has gotten things from President Trump which they very much wanted. I was a supporter of the Singapore summit, but there’s no question that the summit document reads like it was written by the North Koreans. For instance, there’s the point about returning remains. Of course they are important for the families of veterans, but in a larger strategic setting, it’s a concession of little significance. But Pence seemed to put a tremendous amount of weight on their return.
The document also contains a commitment to denuclearize, and it contains an overarching willingness on the part of the US to provide assurances to the North Koreans. But if you look at the order of the bullet points in the agreement, the priorities are striking. It first includes a discussion of improving the bilateral relationship, which means for the North some sort of normalization, including sanctions relief. It then has a discussion of a peace regime, which is the complicated issue about how you would end the Korean War and replace the armistice. Obviously it is very difficult for a US president to negotiate this in the absence of a nuclear agreement. And finally the third--and last--point is about denuclearization. The order is revealing.
Coming out of Singapore, the North Koreans thought summits were a good thing. They thought they could walk into them and get a lot of what they wanted, without being constrained to give anything. But after that summit, the United States realized it needed to get back to the table to hammer out details. In 2018, it became clear that the North Koreans had no interest in returning to detailed, working level talks. That is partly what resulted in the second summit, because the United States felt it could not make any progress unless it went back to the summit level.
You wrote in March that “it is progress on the working-level talks that ultimately will decide whether Hanoi was a failure or a blip.” Is there any evidence of progress on the “working level talks” to date?
Because Stockholm is the first time there have been working level talks since Hanoi, there is currently zero progress, except that now both parties have a better understanding of where they stood in relation to one another prior to Stockholm. We are headed to a January 1st deadline such that if nothing happens between now and then—and I don't believe anything will—the United States and North Korea will go back to conflict mode. Kim Jong Un has said as much, and he tends to do what he says he is going to do. Whether that includes the testing of nuclear weapons is hard to say. It seems there are advantages in not testing nuclear weapons. But I still expect him to go back to more open development of his missile capabilities just to send a signal that they are not stopping to produce them.
Given the US agenda for a total dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear problem, what room is there for compromise? You have stated that shutting down Yongbyon can only be a start. What would it take for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program? Is there any incentive powerful enough that the US can provide?
No one knows the answer to that question. People will come up with spiffy-sounding answers and complicated road maps, but it all hinges on a whole series of other contingencies, including whether the president is going to pay attention to this issue over the course of 2020. It is election season, and the president is facing a full blown constitutional crisis in the United States. Moreover, as Trump has said on multiple occasions, as long as the North Koreans are not testing nuclear weapons, and as long as they are not testing long range missiles, then what is there to worry about? Trump has said that in very embarrassing ways, such as standing on a dais with the Prime Minister of Japan and saying that missile tests that violate UN Security Council resolutions do not matter. Well, they matter for Japan.
I can imagine a path where Trump punts on this question. As long as the North Koreans are cautious, they can continue to fly under the radar and develop their program. Now what concerns me is that the sanctions are probably having some effect, even if the Chinese are not supporting them entirely.
Given U.S. capacity to look at satellite photography and to impose secondary sanctions, at least against larger Chinese firms engaged in sanctions busting, China cannot, without cause, continue to violate the sanctions regime. Even we don’t know the extent of sanctions violations on the part of the Chinese, China still holds a very important card. Whether the Chinese cooperate with the imposition of the multilateral sanctions depends partly on whether they think the US is being serious in trying to move forward on the negotiations.
China agreed to the sanctions because Trump convinced Xi Jinping back at the Mar-a-Lago summit in 2017 that he was serious about making progress. It looked like things were moving along. But then this continual stalling out occurred, and the inability to make any progress has probably affected what China was willing to do.
My view is that China can turn the dial and relieve the pressure on the North Koreans if they think the United States is not doing anything. If that continues to take place, Kim Jong Un has breathing room. He is then not under any great pressure to make any significant concessions, and the result is that nothing gets done. The North Koreans had wanted another summit because of their belief (which proved not true in Hanoi) that if they get to Trump, they can unlock a more substantive set of concessions. But given the election season, that is probably a miscalculation and they themselves have pulled away from giving Trump an empty summit at which nothing gets done.
If the North Koreans do start to test again, and the president is attacked on his foreign policy, it's going to be harder to reach a deal. People will portray him as soft. He could get squeezed on his right as well as left flanks. There are those, like John Bolton, who do not want the president having summits with Kim Jong Un. If he goes back down that path, and it appears like nothing is getting accomplished, he is going to get attacked by both the Democrats looking for a foreign policy issue and the Republicans.
Featured Image by Dan Scavino “Kim and Trump shake hands across a table at the Singapore Summit.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.