Seoul, South Korea – Flip-flopping and showing indecisiveness by leadership in both the United States and North Korea have revealed a growing uncertainty over how each side should move forward in the wake of their second summit in Vietnam, which collapsed before any agreement could be made.
US President Donald Trump caused widespread confusion last week by tweeting that he had ordered the Treasury Department to cancel a new set of “large-scale sanctions” that were announced the day before.
Washington officials, in an attempt to explain the splintered messaging, offered up the story that Trump was referring to an undisclosed package of sanctions not yet revealed. But after the dust settled in Washington, it was reported Trump’s tweet was actually about two Chinese shipping companies that were being targeted by the Treasury Department for helping North Korea evade sanctions.
Trump’s message overruled his own officials, underlining the administration’s fragmented approach to dealing with North Korea and its growing nuclear arsenal.
It also demonstrated that Trump knows the importance of sanctions in getting North Korea to the negotiating table.
“The president clearly has something in mind about how he wants to move forward, but the administration as a whole doesn’t look like its working in unison,” said James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
In Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the leadership’s approach appears equally out of sorts.
In a sign of rising tensions last Friday, North Korea suddenly withdrew its officials from a joint liaison office operated in tandem with South Korea along their shared border – one of few tangible signs of progress from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s outreach to North Korea last year.
The sudden withdrawal stoked fears in Seoul and Washington that the regime would return to reclusiveness after it failed to win any sanctions relief from the summit in Hanoi.
But those fears were snuffed on Monday when North Korean officials returned to the liaison office for work, offering no explanation for the sudden about-face.
Some believe Trump’s divergent messages on Twitter are what kept diplomacy alive.
“The way they’re reading the tea leaves about what went on in Pyongyang,” said Kim, “was that the president’s tweet … pushed Pyongyang to respond in a positive way.”
While frustrating to his aides, Trump has shown a knack for keeping Pyongyang engaged even while dealing them disappointment – a talent his predecessors lacked as they tied to threaten, cajole, and pry North Korea away from its nuclear programme.
The uncoordinated approach from both leaders could be part of “a reset while both sides re-examined their approach”, according to Lonnie Edge, assistant professor at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Pyongyang may be dealing with disappointment after the summit ended without a deal.
Trump spent months claiming all he cared about was North Korea’s moratorium on missile testing, but the summit fell apart when hard-line demands were presented to North Korea. The two sides failed to reach a middle ground in trading sanctions for denuclearisation.
This likely was not what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expected as he travelled 65 hours by train to meet Trump in the Vietnamese capital. North Korea has turned to blame not Trump, but the figures around him for the failure, singling out NSA John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as roadblocks to peace, accusing them of excessive demands and creating an atmosphere of “hostility and mistrust”.
The summit’s collapse laid bare a yawning gap in expectations between the sides, making it unlikely the two leaders will be meeting for another summit anytime soon.
But even as Trump admitted the need for lower-level negotiations to close the gap, he may be unable to stay out of the North Korea issue entirely.
“This is the one foreign policy arena where he has been given any credit, or made any real progress,” said Edge. “I think it will be hard for him to give up.”
Trump’s tweeting away sanctions last week may have shown North Korea he remains the unconventional US president they have been betting on to help them ditch sanctions while keeping a large chunk of their nuclear programme intact.
The North Korean leader has stayed quiet since the summit, a sign he may be unsure how to proceed. Kim has billed himself as the leader that would bring wealth into his impoverished country, but his efforts remain choked by sanctions.
“I don’t think he’s quite made up his mind yet on what he’s going to do,” said James Kim.
But he isn’t without options. Satellite imagery examined earlier this month showed activities at Sohae Satellite Launching Station that looked very much like “preparations for the delivery of a rocket”, according to analysts at Beyond Parallel, a think-tank focusing on North Korea.
Earlier this month, Pyongyang threatened to cut off talks with the US completely when Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, said Pyongyang would reconsider its self-imposed moratorium on missile testing unless Washington made concessions.
Kim from Asan said another test at this point is unlikely, especially with Stephen Biegun, the US envoy to Pyongyang, in Beijing this week seeking support from China with regards to North Korea.
Trump may be tempted to meddle in diplomacy as he did last week, and Kim may encourage that instinct. But with slim chances of another summit taking place any time soon, their less erratic aides and counterparts in the region may play a greater role in determining what happens next.
“[China] clearly doesn’t want an arms build-up in the region either,” he said. “They would like to see a peaceful resolution with some kind of a drawdown from both sides.”