SEOUL – Connie Kim in Washington contributed to this report.
When North Korea walked away recently from its first working-level nuclear talks with the United States in months, its negotiators cited what they referred to as U.S. inflexibility and hostile policies.
In some ways, it was a classic North Korean negotiating tactic: citing long-standing complaints about Washington as justification to yet again leave nuclear negotiations.
But the move also shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be emboldened to hold out for a better deal, believing his counterparts in the U.S. and South Korea have been weakened amid domestic political scandals, some analysts say.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump faces a fast-expanding impeachment inquiry related to his attempts to get foreign governments to investigate political opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Most opinion polls show the Democratic front-runner with a substantial lead over Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in is dealing with his lowest approval ratings ever, amid a slowing economy and a corruption scandal surrounding his new justice minister. Moon’s signature policy — engagement with North Korea — has also stalled, with Pyongyang recently labeling him a “meddlesome mediator.”
It’s not clear whether Trump and Moon’s domestic problems will necessarily prompt either leader to change his approach toward North Korea; but, the scandals could change North Korea’s calculus, making a nuclear deal more difficult, according to observers.
“I think they have good reasons to take a maximalist position,” says Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean national security adviser. “I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for having high expectations.”
Among the possible reasons for Kim’s confidence: He may believe the political calendar works in his favor, and that even the status quo brings important benefits.
Trump, who has suggested he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his outreach to Kim, is entering the final year of his first term as president, having made virtually no progress on getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Over the past several months, Trump has made several moves that suggest he is more eager to reach a deal, including firing National Security Adviser John Bolton, who disagreed with the North Korea talks, and speaking of the need for a “new method” to the nuclear negotiations.
Trump has also consistently downplayed the importance of North Korea’s 11 rounds of missile tests since May, including a recent firing of a medium-range ballistic missile designed to be launched from a submarine.
The U.S. president maintains that the missile tests are not long-range and therefore not a threat to the United States, even though they violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.
By continuing medium- and short-range missile tests, Kim may be attempting to effectively erode the U.N. resolutions. And by dangling the possibility of bigger, more provocative tests, Kim appears to be attempting to gain additional leverage over Trump at a politically sensitive moment.
“(Kim) believes that he can influence Trump’s electoral chances,” says Chun. “Whether that’s true or not, that’s how he might believe he has the upper hand.”
Kim in April 2018 announced a moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests, saying the country no longer needs such tests after having completed the production of nuclear weapons.
Although North Korea’s decision to pause those tests was self-imposed and never formalized in a written agreement, Trump later claimed credit for the change in Kim’s behavior.
With talks now stalled and a U.S. election approaching, Kim has begun routinely issuing threats to resume nuclear or ICBM tests.
“The moment Trump took credit for what Kim Jong Un did voluntarily, he gave power to Kim Jong Un to deny Trump’s self-claimed achievements,” Chun says. “Trump made himself a political hostage of North Korea.”
But if Kim does believe he controls Trump’s reelection chances, the North Korean leader may be mistaken.
Foreign policy is rarely the deciding factor in a U.S. presidential election, and even if North Korea did resume nuclear or ICBM tests, Trump may be able to succeed in convincing the public of the need to return to a “tougher” approach, says Bong Young-shik of Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“If the North Korean nuclear threats get exacerbated, it may enhance popular support for the incumbent president, thanks to the increased sense of crisis,” says Bong.
The Trump impeachment threat, too, may not help give Kim what he desires. Even if Trump did give North Korea a favorable deal, there’s no guarantee his eventual successor would uphold it, many observers point out.
“It’s going to be very difficult, I think, for the North Koreans to be relying on anything that this administration commits to,” says Susan Thornton, who served as a senior U.S. diplomat in East Asia until 2018.
It will be “very erratic” for North Korea to deal with the Trump administration in the near term, Thornton told VOA’s Korean service.
Moon’s problems at home
How South Korea’s domestic politics may impact the North Korea negotiations is also unclear.
In some ways, Moon’s position is relatively stable; he does not leave office until 2022 and has no possibility of reelection.
But with the North Korea talks stalled and South Korea’s economic growth slowing, Moon’s approval ratings have fallen into the low 40s. By comparison, Moon’s approval ratings were roughly twice that high during his first year as president.
While Moon remains more popular than many of his predecessors at this point in his presidency, he faces a growing wave of conservative opposition protests against his justice minister, Cho Kuk, who has been embroiled in fraud and corruption allegations.
So far the protests have been accompanied by mass demonstrations of support for Moon, and the situation has not prompted any major changes in his North Korea strategy, according to Jeffrey Robertson, who specializes in South Korean diplomacy at Yonsei University.
“There are much more significant hurdles to Moon’s plans, including other actors, such as the U.S. and North Korea itself,” Robertson says.
North Korea has explicitly rejected South Korea’s role as mediator, saying it no longer needs Seoul in order to meet with Washington.
Despite the breakdown in talks, Seoul has attempted to portray the North Korea talks in a positive light, saying there is still momentum for denuclearization.
The U.S. State Department, too, has said the latest working-level talks were “good.”
The only party that seems to disagree is North Korea.
After walking out of the most recent talks, North Korea’s foreign ministry reiterated its end of year deadline, saying it will not engage in “sickening” negotiations unless the U.S. changes its unspecified “hostile policy.”