It’s always difficult to discern the goings-on inside North Korea–much less its future. If the failure of the wild speculations to materialize about a provocative “Christmas gift” last December did not teach commentators that lesson, then the recent unfounded rumors about Kim Jong-un’s health surely did. Or is that wishful thinking? South Korea’s unification minister rightly condemned these rumors as “fake news,” and cautioned about their harmful impact.
But if we look at North Korea’s recent gestures and the international context, we can reasonably guess a few unexciting things about the future of the Korean Peninsula. Overall, the year 2020 looks like a dud all around: the economy, diplomacy, jobs, solidarity. And that also goes for peace between the Koreas. If we look at current trends, this year will likely see little progress with North Korea–with a tiny chance of upside, best case scenario.
One optimistic interpretation of the nonappearance of a provocative Christmas gift, such as a nuclear or ICBM test, is that Kim prefers doing business with Trump due to this administration’s unorthodox approach. This interpretation would wager that Kim and Trump would, therefore, avoid provoking one another or embarrassing one another politically.
It also presumes that Kim thinks that Trump will win reelection this November, but the devastation from the COVID crisis is dragging him down in the polls. Meanwhile, the total deterioration of U.S.-China relations provides North Korea with a divided, polarized international community. And North-South Korean relations are bad, too. Firing guns at one another doesn’t exactly say “brotherly love.”
If Kim believes Trump will lose the election, North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear weapons technology and might overplay its hand if Trump and Kim do end up meeting, thus guaranteeing no deal–as Kim did at the summit in Hanoi last year.
The Hanoi failure did serve to remind observers how important sanctions relief is for North Korea, however. And it showed that the United States may have been willing to offer a peace declaration and diplomatic liaison offices if the deal were right. Indeed, while North Korea has been sending friendly signals to Russia and China, the CIA director nominee said he believes Pyongyang would give up “some” of its nuclear arsenal for sanctions relief.
That leaves a tiny shred of hope. Crises can have counterintuitive effects. Here’s an idea: Perhaps the COVID crisis could do some good by creating political cover (or an excuse) for the United States to offer sanctions relief to North Korea out of humanitarian concern. That could facilitate the revival of a deal that has yet to come to fruition.
Devin Stewart is Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs where he founded the Asia Program. He also has served as an adjunct assistant professor in international affairs at Columbia University and New York University.