While the recent US/North Korean summit in Hanoi ended abruptly with no agreement, Donald Trump was sufficiently strong in his self-belief to ignore the setback. It simply wasn’t in his nature to accept that Kim Jong-Un was a more efficient deal-maker, and that at least avoided an immediate crisis.
This volatile relationship may be out of the headlines at the moment, but none of the partners is passively waiting for the other to move. North Korea and the US are each making themselves ready for war, while the South Korean president struggles to keep negotiation alive.
The Hanoi summit on 28 February followed last year’s 12 June meeting in Singapore, which Trump declared a success and promptly followed by cancelling the annual military exercises that the US held with South Korea. Many people around the world were glad that tension had reduced compared with the rhetoric of a year earlier. Many in the US and South Korean military, however, were far from happy at Trump’s action, and their concern has deepened with reports that, while North Korea has refrained from testing missiles or nuclear warheads, it is quietly building more missiles and is not dismantling its key nuclear production facilities.
What is more, the Pyongyang regime is still developing its sanctions-busting arms exports and swapping banned imports and exports ship-to-ship at sea. Meanwhile, North Koreans suffer food shortages that have led the UN World Food Programme to call for an easing of some sanctions.
Trump’s people don’t seem to be taking much notice. The same cannot be said for the US military: it has simply carried on preparing for a future crisis in a different way.
One clear example is what has replaced two of the previously regular exercises, ‘Foal Eagle’ and ‘Key Resolve’. These involved tens of thousands of South Korean and US troops as well as many from other countries, the intention being to train for offensive actions against North Korea including so-called ‘decapitation strikes’ to destroy the leadership.
These exercises were very upfront with plenty of media coverage, as if to remind Pyongyang of the offensive capabilities of their opponents. Instead we now have low-profile exercises involving much computer simulation under the name of ‘Alliance’ (Dongmaeng), which the Pentagon newspaper, Stars and Stripes, says has actually strengthened cooperation and preparations for a possible conflict.
In parallel with these military changes, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has been intent on restarting negotiations. Last month he proposed what were described as semi-official three-way talks about getting the nuclear negotiations back on track. Speaking to the South Korean National Security Council, he said: “We hope that the two sides will continue their dialogue and that the two leaders will achieve the settlement that was put off this time by meeting again at the earliest date possible.”
These would be somewhere between ‘Track One’ negotiations involving heads of state or foreign ministers and more informal ‘Track Two’ talks. The latter typically involve non-government personnel who have direct connections to their respective leaderships but whose efforts can be sidelined without loss of face if political circumstances require it.
Moon is feeling his way on this while facing conservative critics at home. He will meet Trump in Washington next week but The New York Times reports that he has “alarmed conservatives by declaring that he would push for joint North-South Korean economic projects, even though the United States insists that this is not the time to ease economic pressure on the North”.
Cobra Ball spotted
Meanwhile, a further clue to US military attitudes is the the US Air Force spy plane that a plane-spotter saw land last Saturday at Kadena Air Force Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. It was one of the US Air Force’s three RC-135S Cobra Ball surveillance aircraft, a plane specifically equipped for collecting data on ballistic missile tests.
Why now? One reason could be that the North Koreans have rebuilt a launch site at Sohae that had been partially dismantled after last year’s Singapore summit. Work started just two days after the failed Hanoi summit in February. Another potential reason came to light last week: at the Hanoi summit, Trump privately demanded that North Korea hand over its nuclear arsenal and additional fissile material to the United States.
This latter demand may have been the prompt that led the Pyongyang regime to end the talks and prepare for further missile tests. If so, then the air of calm that seemed to survive even the Hanoi summit may be coming to an end. That, at least, is what the Pentagon is preparing for, which means that the storm may now be gathering to replace the calm.