We are now only a week away from the meeting in Singapore between North Korea’s Kim Yong–Un and US President Donald Trump which will be – of course – the greatest most historic, most incredible occasion in the entire history of humanity. Whatever happens, or if nothing happens, Trump is going to declare an amazing victory, so it might be useful to try and pre-empt the bullshit and establish what if anything, this meeting will actually deliver.
1. Most Probable Outcome? Nothing at all, beyond an agreement to keep on talking to each other. As Bloomberg News suggests, this ‘kick the can down the road’ outcome will be dressed up as a lofty agreement to (one day, some day) rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. (Give these men the Nobel Peace Prize!) By making a commitment to suspend its nuclear and missile testing (hey, but North Korea has already scrapped its nuclear testing programme) Kim Jong-Un might then secure a modest level of relief from economic sanctions. Which would make the whole charade worthwhile for him, anyway.
Ever since the 1990s, North Korea has been adept at making such gestures, to win a few economic gains from the West. Ironically, this kind of trade-off (ie a step away from nuclearisation, duly rewarded by economic relief) is exactly the sort of deal that Barack Obama negotiated with Iran, and which Trump has recently torn up.
2. The Step Up Option. North Korea is unlikely to go any further, but lets assume – for the sake of the argument – that it does do a bit more. What might that next level of concessions look like? If North Korea was to take substantive steps towards phasing out its nuclear weapons, this would require the talks in Singapore to establish a timeframe for further talks on setting up a framework for dismantling and verifying the de-nuclearisation process, with an end point in sight when the world could reasonably expect the process to be completed. Five, ten, or fifteen years from now?
Oh, and this level of concession would require the outside world to be handed unprecedented access to reclusive North Korea, which would have to agree to surrender a vast amount of its military and national sovereignty to the IAEA verification teams.
3. North Korea Capitulates. If that outcome is supremely unlikely, the next level moves into the realm of fantasy… The unilateral disarmament of North Korea would require Kim Jong-Un to both scrap his existing nuclear stockpile, and also his arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the missile context, the big items are the Hwasong 14 and the bigger Hwasong 15, which is the one said to be able to reach cities in North America.
In order to ensure this goal wasn’t being achieved at the expense of nearby South Korea and Japan, such a capitulation would also have to involve North Korea agreeing to get rid of its short-range missiles as well. If there was a side agreement to also cap North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material currently being used to help meet its energy needs, this concession too, would require Kim to submit to a separate, equally intrusive and equally humiliating framework of inspection and verification.
So far, North Korea has already made it crystal clear that it has absolutely no interest in adopting the “Libya model” being promoted by US Vice –President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Talk about a cautionary tale. This trade-off between de-nuclearisation and economic investment ended up with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi lying dead in a ditch when the West eventually chose to side with the rebels. Quite an inducement.
In recent days, North Korea has been given further evidence of just how unreliable a partner the US can be. As mentioned, North Korea has watched the Iran de-nuclearization deal be scrapped by the White House – even though Iran fully met its side of the bargain – without the promised US foreign investment ever eventuating, and with those countries that did invest in trade (eg New Zealand) now being threatened with US sanctions.
4.US Concessions. What could Trump offer to Kim to sweeten the talks? Defence Secretary James Mattis has already told a US Senate hearing that a reduction in US troops on the Korean peninsula is not on the agenda for this round of talks.
Fine. But – Trump being Trump – that doesn’t mean a potential US troop reduction won’t be mentioned. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump talked of reducing the US troop presence in South Korea from the current 28,500 down to around 22,000, the minimum presence that’s possible under US law. At the very least, the US and South Korea could agree to scale back their current level of military exercises on, or near the border with North Korea. North Korea could make a similar gesture in that direction.
5. Does North Korea Need this Deal? “No” is the short answer. One of the perceptual problems is that the West readily assumes the North Korean economy is on the ropes, and that economic weakness has made Kim desperate to deal. The famines of the 1990s still colour our perceptions of North Korea. And besides, China is always assumed to be impatiently pressing Pyongyang to concede.
The reality is more complicated. Yes, Pyongyang has a trade imbalance with China, which routinely accounts for 81% of North Korea’s trade with the outside world, and this figure rose to 91% in 2016. But that high level of dependency is nothing new. And besides, those figures may well be unreliable:
North Korea spent $US3.3 billion on Chinese imports in 2017, an uptick from last year, but only exported $US1.6 billion in goods over the last twelve months, according to an NK News review of data from China’s General Administration of Customs. North Korea’s 2017 exports represent a dive from 2013, when it shipped out almost $US3 billion in goods to China….UN restrictions on the buying of coal, iron, gold, silver, titanium, vanadium, nickel, copper, zinc, and rare earth minerals from North Korea appear to account for much of the drop in trade.
But as NK News points out, North Korea has always spent more than it appears to make from trade with China, which suggests that some alternative source of funding also exists. Countries that operate consistently at trade deficits, like the US, usually have foreign investment or foreign ownership of debt. The UN prohibits both activities in regard to North Korea. The gap in cash in and outflows suggest both that North Korea is evading sanctions and finding ways to make money that defy international law, or that China isn’t accurately reporting the numbers.
Right. More to the point, as the South China Morning Post pointed out here, the North Korean economy actually seems to be in healthier shape than it has been for quite some time:
The Bank of Korea, the central bank in Seoul, estimated the North Korean economy had grown 1.24 per cent on average since Kim took power, expanding by 4 per cent to US$28.5 billion in 2016, the fastest growth in 17 years.
Reportedly, famine is not an issue. Malnutrition still is. In short, as the SCMP report sums up in their sub-heading:
Although UN sanctions have limited growth, North Korea’s financial health – and the physical health of its people – seem to be stabilising.
So, to sum up… North Korea has little reason to make the first move. Regardless, the White House keeps insisting that North Korea is seriously interested in giving up its nuclear weapons – or that it can be induced/bribed/threatened to do so – and North Korea keeps on telling Washington that this really, really isn’t the case, and isn’t going to happen. Downstream from that gaping chasm in the positions of the two sides though, there is room for theatre. North Korea has been engaged in this kind of theatre for nearly 30 years. But by its reckoning it is only because it has nuclear weapons that the US is now willing to take it so seriously.
Probably though, this is taking the theatre itself too seriously. It isn’t really about geo-politics or even about what’s in America’s best interests. As he’s shown time and again, Trump treats the US as a conglomerate that he’s asset stripping for the personal benefit of himself and his family. On that level, the encounter in Singapore does have some publicity value for Brand Trump. Beyond that… not much. Too bad for Kim that there isn’t much perceived value in offering the US President a few exclusive hotel and golf course franchises in North Korea. That would really have got Trump’s attention.
Dear Nora Returns
In the Pacific northwest – you know, the region supposedly vulnerable to North Korean missiles – Katy Davidson and her sometime band Dear Nora have earned a small devoted following. That’s been mainly thanks to their mystical, much loved and influential folk album Mountain Rock in 2004. The band then kind of disappeared back into the woodwork. Last year though after Mountain Rock got re-issued to a fresh round of critical acclaim, Davidson recorded a new album called Skulls Example, released only late last week.
Dear Nora was named after Davidson’s music teacher at school. Even on the few occasions when her songs are too wispy to stand concentrated attention, you can feel the keen intelligence behind this music. For example: “Ancient Plain” (from the new album) stands most of the clichés about the freedom of the open road on their head. In this rendition, the traveller finds herself in a small town bar where the locals don’t even lifts their heads to look at the newcomer, much less to watch the TV overhead, which is playing episodes of Friends….and lest this seem like a mean-spirited takedown, Davidson contrasts the bar scene with the rolls of thunder out on the ancient plains beyond the edge of town.
In short, her songs get under your skin, and they’re less simple than they seems thanks to Davidson’s wry wit, and the considered distance in song after song between human aspirations, morality and wild nature …
And here’s the album’s opening track “White Fur”….