After President Donald Trump returned from the meeting in Vietnam with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un without a deal, confusion has reigned about what this means for the security of the United States, and whether denuclearization is possible.
Recent satellite images show that work on a rocket launch site in North Korea has continued unabated throughout the entire period of diplomacy between Trump and Kim, and this has cast doubt on the process.
A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in August 2018 showed that more than half the population across 26 countries were worried about a North Korean nuclear threat and that on average it had risen since 2013, the time of the previous survey.
However, three of the countries that experienced the sharpest drop in fear were North Korea’s neighbors: South Korea (-15%), Russia (-9%), and Japan (-4%). Given that North Korea has escalated its nuclear testing since 2013, the fall in worries in the people most likely to be affected by a nuclear strike can reasonably be attributed to Trump’s diplomacy efforts.
Whatever the president is doing creates some confidence in the people of Northeast Asia that the nuclear threat is reduced. One caveat is that the survey was conducted before the second summit and therefore does not contain the most recent attitudes.
In traditional foreign policy logic, the odds of achieving success have been diminished greatly by Kim’s apparent duplicity. But Trump follows a different logic. He is more akin to a street fighter who expects his adversaries to play rough and dirty, which they often do.
In harsh street language, North Korea’s actions are nothing but saber-rattling to get a better deal. Kim must appear strong before his home audience. He must be seen to score a victory in order to maintain power over the military and the support of his people. Therefore, he cannot simply sign a treaty and give the country’s official enemies what they want.
Trump seems to understand this and therefore continues what is an effective strategy: communicate in calm, public diplomatic language that can be sold to North Koreans as respectful, tough negotiations, while at the same time behind the scenes hit the regime hard with sanctions. A senior administration official told reporters that the United States remains open to continuing discussions with North Korea, but the sanctions will not be lifted until all threats are removed.
So how do we know that this is just rough and tumble play and not duplicity on Kim’s part? Far more important than what Kim says to the world is what message the official propaganda machinery tells his people through radio and TV broadcasts.
These internal North Korean outlets have altered the message from one of war to one of peace. Insults and derogatory language toward South Korea and the United States have ceased. That indicates Kim regards the peace process as real and the way forward.
There probably will be more setbacks on the way, as any tough negotiation process entails, but we should expect the talks to resume and a deal eventually to be reached.