North Korea Shifts Their Strategy

By Linda Wang

At the historic 2018 Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the vague promise of “complete denuclearization” by the United States US and North Korean counterparts seemed to usher in a period of hope and normalized relations between the two nations. This era came to a grinding halt at the Hanoi summit, which came to an abrupt end after negotiators from the US and North Korea failed to come to an agreement. Trump’s proposal involved the lifting of economic sanctions in return for a complete dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal, whilst Kim offered only partial nuclear disarmament in return for the lifting of the harshest sanctions. In the months following the failed summit, working-level discussions between the two nations have proven to be unsuccessful. North Korean officials have frequently stood up their US counterparts at bilateral meetings and have accused US officials such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton of intentionally sabotaging discussions. [1]

On April 12, a little over a month after the end of the Hanoi summit, Kim delivered a speech to his legislative body that signaled a shift in tone for US negotiations. Kim said that he would only be interested in another summit with the US if the US changed their proposal by the end of this year, suggesting that North Korea may take a more aggressive and less diplomatic different path in 2020 if the optics did not change. “I think we shouldn’t obsess with a summit with the United States only because we are thirsty for sanctions relief,” Mr. Kim said. “We will no longer obsess over lifting sanctions imposed by the hostile forces but we will open the path to economic prosperity through our own means.” [2]

On April 17, North Korea tested a short-range guided missile, according to US intelligence. This was the first missile test North Korea conducted since November 2017, when Kim agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing during its negotiations with the US. By testing the short-range weapon, North Korea did not break its self-imposed ban on long-range missile testing, but they did signal a departure from the diplomatic stance they had been taking since 2017. Analysts have said that this was a strategic move to raise pressure on US officials amidst deadlocked negotiations and the North Koreans’ accusations of US sabotage. [3]

On April 25, Kim traveled to Vladivostok to meet with President Vladimir Putin, making it the first time a North Korean leader has been in Russia since 2011. Leading up to the meeting, the Kremlin managed expectations about the summit between the two leaders, openly stating that the two leaders did not intend on signing any agreement. An analyst from the Russian international Affairs Council said that Putin had been intending to meet with Kim for a long time so that Russia was “not just an observer but an active player in this drama." Russia shares a short border with North Korea and is uncomfortable with having a nuclear neighbor. Having been left out in the US-North Korean discussions for the past two years, this meeting signaled Russia’s interest in formally taking part in the political negotiations around North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. [4] Kim may be trying to foster closer alliances with Russia in order to secure more leverage over the US in future negotiations, and Russia has the potential to be a key economic ally for North Korea, just as China has been for the previous decades. UN reports have accused Russia of undermining international economic sanctions on North Korea by providing illegal shipments of oil and coal to the regime, and Russia is a popular destination for migrant workers and a major source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped North Korean state. [5]

The speech, the missile launch, and the meeting with President Putin establishes a pattern of behavior that signals a strategic departure from the United States. After the collapse of US-North Korea negotiations, Kim has begun to pursue a foreign policy strategy that may not necessarily include a diplomatic relationship with the United States. By acting in such a public manner, Kim wants to send a message to the United States that they are willing to completely turn away from their negotiations, but is giving the United States an opening until the end of the year to change their proposal. If the United States does not buckle under North Korean pressure, however, tensions may rise once again.

 Linda Wang is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

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