When the House of Commons Library last published a briefing on North Korea in August 2017, the prospect of war with the US seemed to be increasing rapidly. Within a few days, North Korean President Kim Jong-un authorised a sixth nuclear weapons test. For the rest of the year, the world held its breath as the war of words between Kim and US President Donald Trump escalated. Meanwhile, UN sanctions against North Korea were significantly strengthened.

Yet since the beginning of 2018 there has been a dizzying volte-face by all sides. At the end of April the two Koreas moved rapidly to hold a summit redolent with symbolism in the Demilitarised Zone between Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Even more remarkably, Kim and President Trump are due to meet on June 12 in Singapore – the first ever meeting between the heads of state of the two countries.

Donald Trump, August 2016 by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 /image cropped.

Why the turn-around?

Analysts have come up with a wide-range of possible explanations, including:

President Trump’s tactics of maximising pressure and raising the level of anxiety about US willingness to use force has changed the calculus for North Korea. It now wonders whether regime survival is more likely to be achieved through doing a deal than by going ‘full-steam ahead’ with its nuclear weapons programme.

UN sanctions are beginning to hit North Korea hard. This is because, for the first time, China has given them serious backing. Kim’s domestic credibility depends on delivering economic improvements and this is now in jeopardy.

The North Korean leader can now show greater flexibility, as he feels he is close enough to a nuclear weapons capability that can strike the US mainland. He is confident that this will give him more leverage in any negotiations.

Kim is not serious about talks, but needs to buy himself some time following the apparent collapse of North Korea’s nuclear testing site after the September 2017 test. Moreover, this could be the latest example of North Korea’s classic tactic of interspersing moments of rapprochement with prolonged periods of confrontation to disorientate and divide its foes.

All the main parties know there can be no ‘winners’ if it comes to a military confrontation – and some will face massive destruction. If this is to be averted, talks are ultimately unavoidable.

Moon Jae-in has played a diplomatic ‘blinder’, managing to close what looked like an unbridgeable gap between two impulsive leaders.

Undoubtedly, many of these factors may have come into play.

When the Kim-Trump summit was announced, hope that a deal might be on the cards rose considerably. Yet most experts have stubbornly resisted getting caught up in the optimism.

Developments in mid-May, when North Korea, annoyed by remarks made by US National Security Advisor John Bolton and another round of US-South Korea military exercises, cancelled a high-level meeting with the South and warned that it might pull out of the summit, were a salutary reminder of the scale of the challenge ahead. Although there has been some uncertainty about what he said, President Trump responded to Bolton’s remarks by reiterating that regime change was not (currently) on the US agenda.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2012

What happens next?

Expert views about the prospects for the summit – if it happens – range from open-mindedness to outright scepticism. Which of these will prove closer to the mark? Here are a few tentative observations:

– As has often been noted, North Korea and the US have very different definitions of ‘denuclearisation’. The North has a wider agenda that embraces the whole Korean peninsula, including the US ‘nuclear umbrella’ that shelters the South. The US says it wants rapid, total and verifiable denuclearisation by the North before any other issues are addressed, including relaxing sanctions. But if both sides are willing to compromise, there are ‘fudges’ available, involving a sequence of reciprocal measures over a long period. The key to success will be how much the two really want a deal.

The balance of forces within the Trump administration is (as ever) difficult to assess. While détente has been breaking out with North Korea, senior positions have been awarded to ‘hawks’ like Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State) and John Bolton. But Pompeo has visited Pyongyang twice already and appears to be on board, and Bolton may ultimately lack the weight to scotch a deal with North Korea if the President wants one badly enough.

If the summit does not happen, or ends badly, the world could quickly be plunged back into high tension, with the minute-hand even closer to midnight than before. But not everything will necessarily revert. The coalition assembled behind maximising pressure may not come back together. China wants to see US flexibility in the negotiations and could place most of the blame on it for any failure, leading it to reduce its commitment to enforcing sanctions. Would this then increase the chances of a US military strike? Maybe, but despite repeated American statements that this remains ‘on the table’, Chinese (not to mention South Korean) opposition could mean that in the end it holds off, unless North Korean provocations go too far. North Korea, its relations with China now mended, will likely weigh its provocations carefully.

North Korea will measure every offer and option in terms of ‘regime survival’. Kim Jong-un wants to strengthen the country’s economy and hopes to bring it ‘in from the cold’, but rapid denuclearisation is a non-starter. The regime will be prepared to inflict further economic hardship on ordinary North Koreans in order to survive. But renewed Chinese assistance may make this unnecessary.

Three weeks and counting until the summit…it could be a bumpy ride.

Further reading

Library briefing: North Korea – August 2017 update

Note: Since we published this analysis, the summit has been cancelled – and then reinstated. A bumpy ride indeed! Look out for further comment from us about the summit once it is over.