In late April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first visit to Russia since taking power in 2011. During his visit to Vladivostok, the North Korean leader held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, their central topic being denuclearization. Despite the lack of joint statements or the documents signed, the “synchronization of watches” of the two leaders created a stir both in the Asian region and in the United States. In his interview to Eurasia.Expert, member of the United States’ National Committee on North Korea Frederick Carriere analyzed the key results of the talks, the differences in the negotiating strategies of Washington and Moscow, and the prospects for the development of the situation around the ‘Korean question’.
– It is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s first visit to Russia. What are the reasons for this trip? What issues do you think were discussed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un?
– I have elaborated on my assumptions about the motivation behind Kim Jong-un’s acceptance – at this specific juncture – of Mr. Putin’s longstanding invitation to visit Russia in an op ed published by The Hill a few days ago.
The only information I have about the issues discussed in Vladivostok is what has been reported in the media. It was particularly interesting in my view that Mr. Putin spoke frankly – as “official” Americans never do – about the restraints on South Korea’s sovereignty imposed by the way the US-ROK alliance is managed.
While any form of engagement with other states or participation in international institutions imposes some restraints on sovereignty, Mr. Putin was right to support Kim Jong-un’s argument that South Korea should act more independently vis-à-vis the US in implementing inter-Korean commitments.
In fact, as I argue in my op ed, it is in the US’s own interest to facilitate inter-Korean cooperation. In this regard, however, I think I’m a voice crying in the wilderness as far as our political class is concerned and the way the US-ROK alliance is discussed in the US mainstream media.
Mr. Putin also spoke accurately about the most critical factor in the failure to implement the September 2005 6PT’s deal, but his view is at odds with the reigning mythology in the US despite Condi Rice’s own admission that the US “moved the goal posts” on inspections that violated the terms of the deal. Why wouldn’t this kind of behavior legitimate North Korean’s distrust of the US or support their contention that the US is hostile toward their country? It’s a shame that President Trump – despite his appropriately friendly words about Kim Jong Un – seems to be totally unaware of these root causes of discord between the US and North Korea. Or perhaps there is awareness and what actually is at issue is a case of bad faith as Kim Jong-un has alleged.
– In your opinion, will Russia and North Korea start working towards denuclearization after this summit?
– Russia and North Korea have been working toward denuclearization for many years already. As you know, Russia (in the guise of the USSR) compelled North Korea to join the NPT as a condition for assisting the country’s legitimate efforts to access the peaceful uses of the atom.
As far as I know, there never has been any gap between Russia and the US on the ultimate objective of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. The differences in this regard are related exclusively to the steps required to achieve this ultimate objective. I hope the Putin-Kim Vladivostok summit will lead to a more realistic view in the US about a viable process of denuclearization although it is hard to be optimistic about this prospect.
– The first meeting of Trump and Kim Jong-un took place in 2018 in Singapore, and it was described as ‘historical’ just because it happened. Following this meeting a vague agreement was drawn up, which stated that both parties were to work towards denuclearization. The second meeting was held in Hanoi in February 2019 and concluded early, with no agreement. Can we say that Trump’s two meetings with North Korean leader failed to bring expected results?
– Like many others who have focused on the Korean Question for decades, President Trump’s unorthodox approach was refreshing and initially seemed potentially promising.
In fact, Trump’s mistaken perception of Kim Jong-un’s motivations for meeting with him in Singapore and Hanoi, combined with Trump’s coercive approach to the negotiation process, finally came to a head in Hanoi and possibly have done irreparable damage to the peace process.
The consequences of these shortcomings are laid out very clearly by Jessica T. Matthews in her recent article in the The New York Review of Books. Her article begins with a revealing vignette about Trump’s recommended approach to arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union during the George H.W. Bush administration. Clearly, the “conviction that bluster and intimidation are universally effective” reflects Trump’s longstanding and deeply held view. Is it possible to succeed in a negotiation of existential significance to North Koreans with such profound misperceptions and flawed negotiation strategies?
– As you know, the talks between Russia and North Korea will continue, as Kim Jong-un has invited Vladimir Putin to Pyohgyang. In your opinion, will US be able to influence the talks between Russia and North Korea?
– I’m not sure what you mean by “influence” in this context. Naturally, as Mr. Putin has indicated, Russia shares the U.S.’s ultimate objective of denuclearization – as do China, Japan and South Korea and maybe even North Korea – and you can call this influence, I suppose. Mr. Putin has spoken about his intention to engage in full transparency when briefing President Trump about his meeting with Kim Jong-un, which is “influence” in the sense of suggesting a sensitivity to the importance of not appearing to be engaging in activities adverse to U.S, interests, etc.
If by “influence” you mean that the U.S. might otherwise constrain negotiations between Russia and North Korea, however, I suppose there are several issues where this might be the case. Just to give one example, the U.S. may make it more difficult for Russia to continue to host overseas workers from North Korea. Still, it seems to me the principle of humanitarian exceptions to UN sanctions can cover such cases, if Russia remains determined to be part of the solution.
– By the way, the Japanese media claim that North Korea plans to develop economic relations with Russia and some other countries in order to weaken its own dependence on China. What do you think of this?
– There’s nothing surprising about North Korea’s desire to diversify its economic and diplomatic partners. Until the changes in the international system in the late 1970s and the subsequent collapse of the USSR – and the perfidy incidental to that calamity – North Korea had a very extensive and diverse group of partners within the Non-Aligned Movement. Of course, Kim Jong-un wants to reduce North Korea’s unhealthy excessive dependence on China. Who wouldn’t?
– President Donald Trump said in an interview to Fox News channel that the US, Russia, China and North Korea have to get rid of nuclear weapons. Earlier CNN channel cited unnamed White House representatives and claimed that Trump plans to prepare a draft agreement for denuclearization that would involve Russia and China. Do you think the US is indeed invested in the reduction of nuclear weapons?
– This is the first I’ve heard of the Fox News interview. The reported comment by President Trump is an admirable objective that I strongly support, but it is totally at odds with the enormous expenditures being made on the upgrading of the U.S.’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. While originally authorized by the Obama administration in response to similar efforts by other countries, the “upgrading” is being continued by the Trump administration with gusto since it so perfectly fits Trump’s worldview.
Isn’t it likely that Trump’s remark in the Fox News interview was just one of those off the cuff, stream-of-consciousness remarks that are only “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? In fact, as Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares Fund pointed out in a recent article, if there is any hope for less reliance on nuclear weapons, it’s because the Trump administration’s approach to nuclear affairs has made it “crystal clear that the United States needs a fundamentally new, saner nuclear strategy.”