Donald Trump recently characterised the ongoing talks with Pyongyang as follows: “[We are] very happy with how it’s going with North Korea. We think it’s going fine.” In contrast to statements earlier in the year, the President made it clear that his administration will not set a time frame for nuclear talks, saying in a recent press conference that “We’re in no rush. We’re in no hurry”. However, the picture being painted by the White House may not accurately reflect how the talks are actually developing. In recent weeks, statements from the Korean Central News Agency have shown a different perspective on negotiations, with demands for sanctions relief growing louder and breakthroughs in talks becoming few and far between.
All these developments came to a head this week with the DPRK postponing a meeting in New York with Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State. Kim Yong Chol was supposed to fly out on Tuesday, during the midterm elections, for his high-level meeting with the US diplomat-in-chief on Thursday. No official reason has been given for the cancellation, however US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley recently said the trip was postponed due to Kim Yong Chol and his team not being ‘ready’ for talks. A South Korean lawmaker cited sources who reported that North Korean officials cancelled due to busy schedules.
So what does this cancellation mean for nuclear negotiations? It seems unlikely that such a meeting between major players from each government would be subject to cancellation due to ‘scheduling errors’ or the like. So the question remains, did the DPRK side need more time to prepare? Or is the cancellation a symptom of more significant issues that have been dogging denuclearisation progress since the Singapore summit.
President Trump made his comments on the DPRK issue during a controversial post-election press conference
Kim Yong Chol is a hugely significant figure in Kim Jong Un’s administration, currently serving as Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, a member of the Presidium of the SPA and as a member of the Central Military Commission of the Worker’s Party of Korea. These positions, along with his rank of ‘General’ in the KPA mean he holds an integral position in the administration and a meeting between him and Mike Pompeo could be seen as a significant step in ongoing negotiations. The downside of all this is that a cancellation from such a key figure is an even bigger obstacle than any other cancellation we have seen so far in these talks, with the exception of the short-lived cancellation of the Singapore summit by President Trump earlier this year.
Kim Yong Chol seen in the uniform of the Korean People’s Army
It should be noted, these talks are still expected to go ahead in the near future according to the US administration and a second leaders’ summit is still planned for early 2019. However, with progress stalling once again in nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang, it seems increasingly unlikely that Pompeo would have been willing or able to provide any significant concession to Kim Yong Chol that would encourage talks to advance in any significant way, and vice-versa. The biggest obstacle still seems to be both sides unwillingness to make any significant concession to the other, and the US seems to be drastically losing influence over the international community as calls for removal of some sanctions are echoed by Moon Jae-in’s government, and the Russian government who have recently made calls for banking restrictions to be lifted. All of this along with continued reports of Pyongyang successfully evading sanctions and continuing to import and export goods illegally may be a major threat to Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions policy against the DPRK. Even Massachusetts Senator Markey has called on the administration to lift bans on aid workers travelling to the DPRK. So it seems a breakthrough is needed in the near future or else Trump and his government may need to adopt a new strategy for dealing with North Korea, and quickly.