Successful sanctions evasion, economic lifelines from China and U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment woes may be among the factors that have emboldened North Korea in nuclear negotiations, analysts and officials say.
Both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continue to play up the personal rapport they say they developed during three face-to-face meetings. But North Korea has said in recent days that it is losing patience, with two missile launches on Thursday, giving the United States until the end of the year to change its negotiating stance.
“Still, I think that Pyongyang has concluded they can do without a deal if they must,” Andray Abrahamian, a visiting scholar with George Mason University Korea, said. “The sad thing is I think that will lock in the current state of affairs, with its downsides for all stakeholders, for years to come.”
Trump’s reelection battle and the impeachment inquiry against him may have led Kim to overestimate North Korea’s leverage, said one diplomat in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. “Trump is all Kim has. In order to denuclearize, Kim needs confidence that Trump will be reelected.”
Although United Nations sanctions remain in place, some trade with China appears to have increased, and political relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have improved dramatically.
A huge influx of Chinese tourists over the past year appears to be a major source of cash for the North Korean government, according to research by Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea. Estimates that as many as 350,000 Chinese tourists have visited this year, potentially netting the North Korean authorities up to $175 million. That’s more than North Korea was making from the Kaesong Industrial Complex – jointly operated with South Korea before it was shuttered in 2016.
For now, North Korea seems inclined to avoid engaging further with the United States or South Korea until they make more concessions. “North Korea appears to be interested only in a deal under its terms to the exact letter,” said Duyeon Kim, with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.