When world leaders sought to bond and make peace in the past, some of them resorted to one (or more) glasses of alcohol. That’s more difficult for President Trump — who is scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday and Thursday — because Trump is a teetotaler.
But vodka may still help explain why he is so optimistic about the outcome of the second summit with the North Korean leader, even as last June’s meeting resulted in only a vague agreement.
To be precise, we’re talking about 90,000 bottles of vodka that were just seized at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. On paper, the 3,000 boxes were supposed to be delivered to China. But Dutch authorities say that the real destination was likely North Korea, with Kim Jong Un’s regime probably being behind the order. If those suspicions are confirmed, the delivery would constitute a major breach of sanctions imposed on the country in response to its nuclear threats in recent years.
What might be bad news for Kim could be good news for Trump, however, or so he may hope.
Ahead of the second summit with Kim, Trump is gambling on the hope that the North Korean leader is willing to give up his nuclear weapons in return for being able to transform North Korea into a 21st century economy. On Wednesday, Trump echoed that theory, writing on Twitter that the potential for North Korea “is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un.” Trump suggested that North Korea could quickly become a “thriving” place if it denuclearized.
So far, the international community has mostly relied on sanctions in trying to coerce North Korea into concessions, but few would object that the sanctions regime is far from perfect. While staunch opponents of the Kim regime — such as the United States — imposed serious restrictions on North Korea and later expanded those measures on foreign businesses trading with the Kim regime, other countries remained more reluctant.
Refusing to give in to U.S. pressure has become more difficult over the last decade, as the United Nations also agreed on stepping up pressure on North Korea by putting sanctions on an increasingly expansive selection of goods, including luxury items, military equipment and vehicles. U.N. sanctions must be approved the Security Council, which includes Britain, France and the United States, but also China and Russia.
Besides trade restrictions, imposed sanctions have consisted of travel bans or asset freezes, among other measures. But none of those restrictions can fully ensure a country’s isolation, as long as it has some friends or partners abroad.
China, for instance, voted in favor of sanctions targeting North Korea at the U.N. Security Council. In reality, however, it stood accused of turning a blind eye to violations in the following years. A report by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded in 2017 that more than 20 countries had either deliberately or accidentally violated U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
The pressure on the Kim regime has somewhat mounted in recent months, after two of North Korea’s traditional partners, China and Russia, backed another round of sanctions last July. Whether those measures have had a substantial impact on North Korea remains controversial.
A number of economic analyses have concluded that North Korea’s economy has shrunk further as a result, which has triggered hope in Western capitals that the time to negotiate with the Kim regime has now come. Others have cautioned that North Korea’s leadership may be far from facing imminent collapse due to foreign restrictions.
Trump’s hope that the North Korean leadership is embattled enough to agree to U.S. demands indicates that he agrees with analysts who have painted a more dire picture of the North Korean regime’s state.
But to Kim — whose regime has long relied on nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival — the rationale might be different. Analysts fear that North Korea might be playing for time. The more it shows that it would have theoretically been willing to denuclearize, the more arguments that Russia, China and other nations will have in favor of lifting sanctions in the future, in case talks eventually falter and Trump is being blamed. Both China and Russia already called on the United Nations to ease sanctions last September, following the summit between Trump and Kim.
During prior rounds of negotiations, North Korea has frequently offered to make political concessions in return for having sanctions dropped — only to fail to deliver on those promises later on.
In 1999, for instance, the United States agreed to partially lift sanctions after North Korea said it would stop testing long-range missiles. About two decades later, it’s clear how little impact that offer had at the time.
So, while Trump’s best-case negotiation scenario would likely result in sanctions-free deliveries of vodka and other goods to Pyongyang at some point, Kim might only be looking for some short-term respite from a long (economic) dry spell, more cautious observers would argue.
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