Security and Foreign Policy

North Korea’s Latest Détente Real or Just a Mirage?

North Korea's annual military parade saw the nation take a more accommodating posture towards the United States, with its lack of ballistic missiles on display. Andy Laub analyzes whether the parade and the exchanges that followed were monumental or whether they were simply a smoke screen.


This week, North Korea publicly sought to move back into a more détente posture with the United States at its most significant annual event: the military parade celebrating the DPRK’s 70th year as a nation. Only this time, there was no display of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles and the anti-American propaganda was largely absent. Additionally, Kim Jong-Un sent President Trump what he described as a “warm letter”, which led the President to claim a quick victory; he tweeted:  “This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea. Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong!” These two simultaneous activities have given the White House so much confidence that spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed there are now private discussions to set up a second summit meeting between the President and the North Korean leader. However, specifics are not yet known. South Korean President Moon Jae-In, ahead of his summit next week with Kim Jong-Un, has also been pressuring the Trump Administration to make “bold decisions” with regards to engaging with North Korea. After President Trump canceled Secretary Pompeo’s last trip to Pyongyang, the hope for the future of talks between the US and the DPRK dimmed. However, there now seem to be renewed interests by both parties, which begs the question- is it all real?

A day after the military parade NBC News cited a report with American intelligence confirming that North Korea has continued to accelerate its nuclear weapons program. The report further states that the rogue nation could have as many as five to eight more nuclear weapons produced by the end of this year. Furthermore, there have been no verifiable steps seen by the DPRK to actually halt its nuclear weapons program and the administration lacks a coherent strategy on how to constructively engage with North Korea in-terms of the bench marks they would like for North Korea to set in the arguably long denuclearization process.

The joint statement signed by the two leaders in Singapore was very vague and did not provide insights into an actual process that might take place going forward. If there is going to be another summit there must be more of substantive strategy going into it, one that takes into account denuclearization benchmarks and recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Another summit with no substantial movement forward in the denuclearization process would be objectively pointless, not to mention it would simply buy North Korea more time with its nuclear ambitions. It is apparent that President Trump likes publicity and Kim Jong-Un likes being recognized as a world leader. But there has to be some consensus on which direction nuclear talks are going to go in or else these talks dangerously play into the North’s strategy of buying time to gain concessions while no progress is actually made.

It is important that the United States pays attention to the little details when it comes to North Korea. The military parade in Pyongyang saw China’s highest envoy to North Korea standing next to Kim Jong-Un, a sight that many overlooked. President Trump had previously pressured China into doing more diplomatically to help on the North Korea front as they are a powerful neighboring ally to the DPRK. But as President Trump continues his trade war with China over tariffs, the situation becomes more complicated. Even though China has publicly supported the ongoing diplomatic process between the United States and North Korea, there are no guarantees as to what turn diplomacy will take if China becomes more of an adversary in the process.

At the military parade, Kim Jong-Un was sending an important message to the world by publicly embracing the envoy’s presence further indicating that the PRC-DPRK relationship was back on track. Now with China being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it could prove to be an obstacle for the Trump Administration’s so called “maximum pressure”, particularly as it pertains to sanctions or any type of international pressure they hope to apply. More importantly, given that President Trump is not always on the same page with other leaders such as President Moon, who’s been the driving force behind diplomacy, as well as President Xi, it is quite possible that Kim Jong-Un is playing these leaders off against one another to gain the upper hand in negotiations. In the meantime, his nuclear weapons program continues to carry on unabated and he continues to burnish his credentials as a global leader. Having no nuclear weapons present at the military parade could very well have been another strategic calculation to improve the image. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that Kim Jong-Un is really ready to come to the table and talk about abandoning his country’s nuclear weapons program.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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