Keep expectations low for breakthroughs from G-20's high-level meetings

Keep expectations low for breakthroughs from G-20's high-level meetings
© TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

There is a great deal of speculation about whether the G-20 meeting between Presidents Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE and Xi Jinping may result in some kind of agreement about how to deal with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnKim invited Trump to visit North Korea amid stalled nuclear talks: report Trump to have dinner with Otto Warmbier's parents: report Ted Lieu congratulates first Asian American cast member on 'Saturday Night Live' MORE. While there is a chance that there may be diplomatic progress soon, we should not hold our breath that the G-20 meeting will bring about any substantive change. This is because, despite the high-level diplomatic exchanges, the fundamental goals and interests of Trump, Xi and Kim — the truths of the U.S.-China-North Korea triangle — have not changed. 

United States-China: When Trump and Xi meet at the G-20, they will address their trade war, during which the United States has levied tariffs on more than $250 billion of Chinese goods, sparking China to impose retaliatory tariffs against more than $110 billion in U.S. imports. They will discuss the fate of Huawei, one of China’s flagship telecoms companies, which alone reaped over $100 billion in revenue, and faces a push, led by the United States, to limit its access to global markets. They will talk about the need to keep talking — or not — in order to wrap up or ramp up the trade war that threatens the global economy. With those issues as the focus, North Korea is likely to remain out of the picture, and certainly not a priority.

China-North Korea: Last week, Xi made his first state visit to Pyongyang, amid the forcibly choreographed pomp that only North Korea can provide. Yet this trip was not to set the stage for some grand deal ahead of the G-20. It was more about shoring up China’s influence than making any progress on denuclearization. China is not pleased with North Korea’s behavior, but it does not hold dominion over the Kim family. So, China must carefully manage its incorrigible neighbor. Beijing will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power on its doorstep, but it also realizes that conditions must be set appropriately for North Korea’s denuclearization. 

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A destabilized North Korea is far worse than a nuclear North Korea, and China will not let the former occur. Thus, China enforces the sanctions it voted to impose on North Korea at the United Nations Security Council, but it does so with a minimalist interpretation. China must inspect cargo crossing the border, but it is not required to inspect every container. The Security Council resolutions authorize China to board and impound ships known to be violating sanctions, but do not oblige it to do so.

Chinese and North Korean media offered hints that Xi and Kim disagreed about some issues at their meeting, yet both sides maintained a façade of camaraderie. The likely source of the disagreement is that, like Trump, Kim believes that “maximum pressure” brought his adversary to the negotiating table and that a return to pressure tactics may be necessary to coerce Washington back to negotiations. Beijing has regularly condemned North Korean provocations, believing them to give the United States justification to leave military forces in Asia. And as long as the two countries can agree that the United States is the greatest threat to their interests, they will have more that binds them than divides them. 

North Korea-United States: Trump and Kim have exchanged another round of letters, signaling that each is ready to talk. While Kim did not gush that Trump’s letter was “beautiful,” North Korean media reported that he would “seriously contemplate” it. While both sides want to talk, they still cannot agree on what to discuss. The U.S. administration has not indicated it is ready to accept an incremental plan toward denuclearization and continues to focus on North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization. Obviously, this is unacceptable to Kim, who has refused to authorize working-level talks to discuss it. 

Instead, North Korea slings insults at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, and continues to ignore Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative, because they believe (probably rightly) that Biegun is authorized to talk only about North Korea’s complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, or CVID. Unless Trump signals that he is willing to discuss a deal smaller than the entire package — and that message is carried by all of his advisers — North Korea is likely to remain reluctant to talk.

Never say never: While a major breakthrough is unlikely, it cannot be ruled out completely. After all, there is no telling what Trump may decide to say at any given time. The president plans to stop in Seoul for discussions with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before returning home from Osaka, Japan. This comes amid numerous intimations by Pompeo that there could be movement on the diplomatic front with North Korea.

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While some have imagined a Trump-Kim meeting at Panmunjom, such could be politically dangerous for both leaders. Another meeting that leads nowhere would be a bad harbinger to each leader’s domestic agenda. Played correctly, though, such a meeting could signal the beginning of a major development between Washington and Pyongyang — a development wherein Trump accepts that North Korea is not going to surrender its entire nuclear program immediately, and Kim accepts that not all post-2017 sanctions will be rolled back.

A breakthrough still will depend on Trump and Kim each accepting less and giving more than they left on the table during their summit in Hanoi, and it will have little to do with Xi or the G-20.    

Christopher Steinitz is the director of the North Korea Program at CNA (Center for Naval Analyses), a federally funded R&D center for the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. His research also includes adversary analytics, strategic and operational naval issues, and maritime security in Southeast Asia. Follow him on Twitter @SteinitzChris.