A year after the first summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, “both sides are very much committed to diplomacy and trying to reach an agreement,” says Frank Aum. Despite the stalled talks, Aum says that Chinese President Xi’s visit to North Korea will likely encourage Kim to continue along the path of diplomacy.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: It's an anniversary of sorts. Let's talk about the serious side of things on the Singapore Summit. Frank Aum is a senior expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, the Twitter handle is @USIP, and is joining us.

Tim Farley: Frank, welcome. Thank you for being here today.

Frank Aum: Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley: So, is it really a year of nothing has happened?

Frank Aum: Yeah. The Singapore Summit happened last year in June. We're in June in 2019 now, and there's been no significant progress between the United States and North Korea despite the fact that there was a second summit meeting in Hanoi earlier this year.

Tim Farley: Was the goal to actually accomplish something, or was it just to actually have the two men meet, or was there a stated goal, do you think?

Frank Aum: Are you talking about the Singapore or Hanoi Summit?

Tim Farley: The Singapore Summit.

Frank Aum: President Trump, before the meeting, said, and he kind of downplayed that quotation, but he said, he described the meeting as a “get-to-know-you-meeting-plus.” He wanted to develop a relation with Kim Jong Un, and then if anything comes out of it, that would have been sort of the icing on the cake, but the agreement that came out of Singapore was to develop new U.S.-DPRK relations, work towards a longstanding and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, as well as North Korea's denuclearization. So, there were some good commitments that came out of the meeting. Unfortunately, the implementation of those commitments haven't been that strong.

Tim Farley: Give us a sense, if you will, Frank, a lot of people think about this Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un, this is a complicated and multilateral relationship. We also have to think about South Korea. We also have to think about China. Give us a sense of the interplay now among the major players in that group.

Frank Aum: Right. President Moon of South Korea has been trying to engage with North Korea and had been successful in 2018 as U.S.-DPRK relations were advancing, as well. Unfortunately, now that there's been a stalemate, the inter-Korean relationship has also been at a pause as well, and I think President Moon has sort of run out of road in terms of things that he can do in terms of inter-Korean cooperation. I think he's looking to get some demonstrations of flexibility from President Trump when those two leaders meet in Seoul at the end of the month.

Frank Aum: In terms of China, President Xi is meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang later this week. Some of it is going to be just ceremonial because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between North Korea and China. At the same time, China will probably try to further their interest by warning against additional North Korea provocations but also encouraging North Korea to continue with diplomacy with the U.S.

Tim Farley: Again, Frank Aum is with us, senior expert on North Korea of the United States Institute of Peace. We get mixed reports about what's happening in North Korea. What's your best information source when it comes to what's actually taking place? One minute we're hearing that somebody's been banished from the inner circle or that somebody's even been executed, and the next minute we're hearing, well, maybe that's not quite the case. How do you rely on information you get from that region?

Frank Aum: It's very difficult. Sometimes we'll get reports, as you mentioned, about executions or top officials being sent to reeducation camps, and these come from South Korean media sources, oftentimes just one single source. So, I think you have to be very wary of taking those reports too seriously until you can get additional verification from, for example, North Korean defectors or actual statements by the North Korean media itself.

Tim Farley: I ask that in part because there had been some rumors that members of the team that have been tasked with negotiating with the United States had been killed as a result of their failure to reach an agreement. I wonder, it makes me think, do you know who Kim Jong Un turns to? Does he have anybody that really is a trusted advisor, or is just everyone waiting for another shoe to drop with him?

Frank Aum: Yeah, so the advisors that he has used consistently is certainly his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has been basically his right-hand woman. Kim Jong Chul, who is the North Korean spy chief, has been the main advisor on security issues. There's also the foreign policy, the foreign affairs officials, the foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, and then Choe Son Hui, who is vice foreign minister. It looks like they still have Kim Jong Un's attention and his confidence, although we've seen reports about some of them being sent off to reeducation camps, but then later pictures emerged where, for example, Kim Jong Chul, the spy chief, was seen with Kim Jong Un at a performance. I think, as far as right now, those officials still remain his top advisors.

Tim Farley: Give us a sense, Frank, of how we as just sort of ordinary citizens should process information that we hear when we hear the posturing, either by President Trump or from Kim Jong Un or one of his representatives in North Korea. What is it that we should take away from that? Is this just posturing? Are there messages being sent? How do you approach it so that we can better understand that dynamic? Because immediately, we hear some of these insults that might be tossed, and people start escalating that into something that may be a little bit more than we should be making of it. Tell us how to process it.

Frank Aum: Right. I think both sides are still very much committed to diplomacy and trying to reach an agreement. President Trump has, and Kim Jong Un as well, they both have expressed a cordial relationship, at least ostensibly, and so that is a signal that they want to keep that relationship going, and they want to keep diplomacy going. At the same time, North Korea is frustrated by the hard line position that the administration has taken. They're trying to create a wedge between President Trump and some of the hawks in the administration, like Secretary Pompeo and John Bolton. It remains to be seen how that turns out. But, again, both sides are committed to diplomacy it seems, but they're frustrated by the maximus positions that continue to remain.

Tim Farley: The position of this administration has been expressed through some of the individuals, as you just mentioned, like Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who said the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the ultimate goal. Is that something that ever is going to happen?

Frank Aum: It's not going to happen in the near future, I'll tell you that. If it does happen, it will take time, it will require incremental process, where both sides provide reciprocal concessions. But, the U.S. policy has been to seek a comprehensive deal on denuclearization and get North Korea, significant denuclearizations from North Korea up front, and North Korea's unwilling to do that. They want to take time to build mutual trust and do so in a more phase and step-by-step fashion.

Tim Farley: Finally, the G20 is upcoming. President Trump has already said he's going to have a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, and clearly they're going to be talking more about trade, but the question of North Korea might come up. How is the China-North Korea dynamic? Are they still the unruly child that they have to deal with? What is that relationship like?

Frank Aum: The two sides, the two leaders, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, have met four times last year, and this will be their fifth meeting. This will be Xi Jinping's first visit to North Korea and the first visit by a Chinese leader since 2005. There's still a relationship between the two. I think China has been frustrated by certain North Korean actions, but at the moment, they've rebuilt those ties, and I think they are signaling that those ties will continue into the future.

Tim Farley: I ask that question, in part, because you can only imagine that there would be some frustrations. Frankly, one wonders if North Korea would even continue to exist were it not for the umbrella of protection that China provides.

Frank Aum: Right. Well, certainly most of North Korea's trade, over 90 percent of the trade, goes through China, so China plays a significant role in North Korea. At the same time, they want to make sure that there is no instability on the border. They very much support denuclearization, but they also agree that's probably not going to happen in the near term future. Again, I think they like the status quo where it's at right now, where there's no significant North Korean provocation, but they don't want it to return to 2018, or, I'm sorry, 2017, where there was talk of “fire and fury” and potential military conflict.

Tim Farley: I think we're all hoping that the “fire and fury” days are behind us, but we'll see if that is indeed the case.

Frank Aum: Right.

Tim Farley: Frank, thank you for joining us today.

Frank Aum: Of course. Thank you.

Tim Farley: Frank Aum, with a one-year look back, if you will, of the Singapore Summits, where we are with North Korea, that relationship, and also the relationship of North Korea and China. Very complicated, and South Korea thrown in the mix also, so watch moving forward in there. Frank, as I mentioned, a senior expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, where the Twitter handle is @USIP.

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