• Issy Williams

Reasoning with the Unreasonable: the Implications of Negotiating with North Korea

After years of helplessly watching North Korea ignore UN sanctions and refuse to reason with the international community, recent months have taken the world by storm as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to have radically changed his tack. The year 2018 has seen Mr Kim take steps to engage with western powers, notably The United States, in a way which would have been virtually unthinkable a year ago. It is important to acknowledge that the leader himself, and the attitudes he embodies, are central to the Catch 22 which has confronted the world for so long. Showing opposition to cooperating on matters of international security on such an extraordinary level, he and his country have become something of a fad throughout political humour and social media over the past few years. Isn’t it ultimately easier to laugh about an apparently irremediable threat than to worry about it incessantly?

Recently, huge shifts have been seen in the relationship between North Korea and the wider world. History was made as Mr Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April earlier this year, witnessing a North Korean leader step over the national demarcation line for the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953. Transcripts from their meeting have been released, which record Mr Kim saying, ‘I’m so filled with excitement because of the meeting at this historic site’. With a tone of civility set in place, President Moon replied: ‘It was your bold and courageous decision that has allowed us to come this far.’* The cordial conversation continued thereafter and seemed not to be masking an aggressive agenda on either side.

Korean leaders Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-In shakes each other's hands during the 2018 inter-Korean summit.

This meeting paved the way for the Singapore summit in June between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim, which also marked a turning point in North Korea’s position on the international stage. Nuclear disarmament was at the forefront of discussions, and President Trump emerged from the summit tweeting: ‘Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.’** Four political experts have, however, expressed significant doubt over this claim. Ankit Panda, adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, draws attention to the fact that North Korea certainly does not intend to dismantle its nuclear arsenal completely, and has signed no document to suggest so. Similarly, John Nilsson-Wright, an expert in North-east Asia, has called the summit a ‘triumph of faith over reality’, but has not ruled out its potential for promoting further progress in the future.*** In spite of such allegations, the meeting has not failed to inspire western optimism for a new era of negotiation with North Korea.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un talking in the Capella Hotel during the Singapore summit.

Such positive headway certainly calls into question the reality of the stereotypes which have plagued the reputations of Mr Kim and his nation for so many years. It is hard to believe that the apparently amicable leader who met with his former adversaries this year also executed his vice-premier Kim Yong-jin for displaying hesitance in a national meeting and not standing upright. Unquestionable evidence attesting to the existence of barbaric labour camps and absolute censorship seems out of line with Mr Kim’s behaviour in Singapore, and yet cannot be argued with. It is therefore important that the world does not overestimate Mr Kim’s ability to perform a 180 degree turn in his approach to the international community.

A UN report was released in early August to reveal that the country has not ceased its nuclear weapons programme, thereby directly flouting UN sanctions and discrediting Mr Trump’s claims to the contrary.**** One might say that this is hardly surprising, and yet the leader seemed very genuine in his extension of an olive branch in recent talks. With North Korea having issued a firm statement last Thursday, accusing some unnamed members of the Trump administration of 'insulting the dialogue partner and throwing cold water over our sincere efforts for building confidence', the stakes seem higher than ever.***** What seems clear, however, is that a balance needs to be struck between welcoming Mr Kim's reformed approach, and yet not disregarding the harsh reality of the leader himself and his formerly isolated state.

* ‘Here's What Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-In Said to Each Other in Their Historic First Meeting’, TIME [http://time.com/5257125/kim-jong-un-moon-jae-in-meeting-transcript/]

** ‘North Korea has not stopped nuclear weapons programme despite Trump's claims, UN report finds’, The Independent [https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-trump-weapons-programme-un-report-sanctions-us-china-summit-a8477136.html]

*** ‘Trump-Kim summit: Deciphering what happened in Singapore’, BBC News [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-44451587]

**** ‘North Korea has not stopped nuclear weapons programme despite Trump's claims, UN report finds’, The Independent [https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-trump-weapons-programme-un-report-sanctions-us-china-summit-a8477136.html]

***** 'North Korea’s latest angry statement toward the US, explained', Vox


At the time of writing, Issy Williams is an incoming final year History student at the University of Bristol. She is most interested in contemporary power politics in Russia, North Korea and the United States.