BREAKDOWN OF SECOND US-NORTH KOREA SUMMIT PUTS KIM IN A TOUGH SPOT
The second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, held in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi February 27-28, broke down abruptly on the morning of the second day. What contributed to the sudden failure of the summit, which appeared to be progressing smoothly until that point? In light of the rupture, which obviously reflected a gross miscalculation on Kim’s part, what further steps should Japan take in order to obtain the release of Japanese abductees detained in the North?
In a special program of my regular “Genron” Internet TV news show on March 1, I discussed the outcome of the failed summit with three prominent commentators: Itsunori Onodera, former defense minister and the Chairman of Security Research Committee of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party; Tsutomu Nishioka, a Korean affairs expert and chief research fellow of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a private think tank that I head; and Kazuyoshi Hanada, editor-in-chief of the popular conservative “Monthly Hanada.” As regards the main reasons for the summit’s rupture, Onodera asserted:
“Kim Jong-un made the mistake of taking Donald Trump lightly. The two leaders had a short tête-à-tête upon arrival in Hanoi on February 27, and later in the day had dinner together in a jovial mood. The following morning the two met again, accompanied only by their respective translators. Until up to that point, Kim looked quite confident that he would get Trump to lift US-led international sanctions against the North. An expanded meeting followed, attended by several key figures on both sides. But the atmosphere of the conference changed suddenly.”
A photograph of the meeting shows, on the US side, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton along with State Secretary Mike Pompeo. Onodera continued:
“I believe the presence of Bolton at the conference table, who earlier had not been expected to take part in the talks, led to Trump’s statement that he would ‘much rather do it right than do it fast.’”
As Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security under President George W. Bush, Bolton was instrumental in getting Libya to discard its nuclear weapons program. Later serving as ambassador to the United Nations (2005-2006), he is well versed in matters relating to the North Korean abduction. As an expert on nuclear, uranium enrichment, and missile development matters, he is not one who is easily taken in by the North Koreans. Deeply committed to principles and detesting easy compromises based on wishful thinking, Bolton may well be regarded as playing a key role in America’s conservative circles today.
While Bolton’s presence obviously enhanced America’s resolve to adhere to its basic principles, what were the concrete reasons for the summit’s breakdown? During a news conference begun at 2 p.m. local time on February 28, Trump stated that Kim demanded the economic sanctions be lifted “in their entirety” in exchange for shuttering its facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. But Trump rejected this as unacceptable.
Rare News Conference by the North
Some 10 hours later, at 43 minutes past midnight on March 1 to be exact, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho called an urgent news conference, with Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui also attending. Both of them appeared to be in a stupor after Kim had failed to make a deal with Trump.
Citing five out of the eleven sanction packages the United Nations imposed on Pyongyang between 2016 and 2017, Ri refuted Trump: “North Korea sought only partial sanctions relief…We sought an end to the sanctions that hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of all people in particular.”
One naturally wonders which of the two parties was telling the truth—the president of the US or the Foreign Minister of North Korea. In a sense, however, both were telling the truth, according to Nishioka. He explained:
“As Ri mentioned, the UN sanctions against Pyongyang comprise a total of eleven points. The first—a ban on the exports of luxury goods to North Korea—really hasn’t hurt the Kim Dynasty a bit, as the Kim family have been able to obtain expensive items, such as filets of tuna or foreign cars, without any difficulty. What is hurting them now are the sanctions newly imposed in 2007, banning 90 percent of the North’s exports. So, demanding relief from these sanctions is tantamount to asking that the sanctions be lifted ‘in their entirety’.”
The crux of the 2017 sanctions is a ban on the export of coal, marine products, and textiles, along with a ban on all UN member nations from contracting North Korean workers. In short, the UN has prevented North Korea from exporting virtually all goods and services of any value. Any UN member nation or private international corporation violating these sanctions will be targeted for secondary sanctions by the US government. This could include suspension of transactions with US banks, among other penalties.
As a result of these sanctions, which Russia and China could not but agree to, North Korea’s total exports dwindled from US$29 billion to US$4.4 billion last year. The impact of the sanctions is apparent from the fact that last month Pyongyang, in a rare show of vulnerability, called on the UN to provide humanitarian aid. Kim thought he could win over Trump with a pledge to permanently dismantle the nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities in Yongbyon. While Kim obviously took his counterpart lightly, Trump came up with a statement that sent shivers down Kim’s spine.
Trump reportedly told Kim: “We know your country very well, believe it or not. We know every inch of your country, and we have to get what we have to get…There are other things (beyond Yongbyon) you haven’t talked about, but that we found.”
When a reporter asked if Trump was referring specifically to a second uranium enrichment plant, Trump replied: “Exactly. We brought many, many points up (to Kim) that I think they were surprised that we knew.”
“Hiding the Tree in the Wood”
The information Nishioka disclosed pointed to the superb intelligence capabilities that sustained Trump’s confidence in confronting Kim. Nishioka explained:
“Western intelligence outfits, including the US, suspected three sites as the North’s possible secret uranium enrichment facilities. While nuclear reactors are extremely difficult to construct underground, uranium enrichment plants can be easily set up underground where they cannot easily be detected by satellites, as the plants only require electricity. Western intelligence was able to have samples of sand and soil collected from around the suspected areas for analysis, but there were no indications of enriched uranium. Western operatives asked local residents to inform them of any suspicious movements in their locale, but all three of the plants eventually turned out to be complete dummies.
“However, US intelligence specialists subsequently managed to ascertain that there was a uranium enrichment facility in Kangson, near Pyongyang, among a cluster of factory buildings at the Chollima Iron Works.”
A nondescript new factory building appeared on one of the satellite images of the iron works. The North Koreans “had hid the tree in the woods,” said Nishioka. But the US was able to successfully pin down the precise nature of the activities within this new building. Nishioka explained:
“The US was able to do this because of the human intelligence resources they have on the ground. Thanks to these resources, they were able to obtain sand and soil samples from around the three suspected underground uranium factories and proved them to be dummies.”
Kim, who likely was confident that he had outmaneuvered his America counterpart, must have been given quite a shock when Trump told him the US was aware of the Kangson facility.
“Unquestionably, time is working against the North. It will not be easy for Pyongyang to secure Beijing’s assistance. Under extraordinary pressure from the US over trade and leading-edge technology issues, Xi Jing-pin’s China at this juncture must deal very cautiously with Washington. To China, I believe North Korea has become a troublesome neighbor whom they do not want to snuggle up to too closely.”
Kim returned to Pyongyang without calling on Xi en route home by train. It would be fatal if Kim should decide to go head to head with America under such circumstances.
Only a couple of options are left open to Kim: pursuing a complete denuclearization through peaceful negotiations with the US, or seeking economic assistance from Japan by implementing an immediate and wholesale return of Japanese abductees still held in the North. It is vital for Japan to continue working closely with the US, standing firm on the principle that the sanctions against North Korea will not be lifted without a denuclearization of the North and a wholesale release of Japanese abductees.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 843 in the March 7, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)