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Brexit and North Korea: Why 'breakthroughs' falter

Why We Wrote This

Breakthrough events often promise a fresh path toward resolving entrenched problems. But transforming a promising moment into a detailed plan for action can be a daunting challenge. 

Susan Walsh/Reuters
President Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un shake hands during the signing of a document after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12.

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Brexit and North Korea have become exemplars of a stubborn law of international affairs: that a “breakthrough” event may pave the way for, but rarely in itself creates, the new reality its cheerleaders foresee. To advocates, Brexit spoke of a Britain liberated, with the promise of rich new trade opportunities worldwide outweighing any short-term economic pain from breaking with the European Union. After President Trump returned from his unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he tweeted: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” But the daunting complexity of redeeming those promises is hitting home. Though the summit communiqué included a commitment to denuclearization, it didn’t say how or when this would happen. British Prime Minister Theresa May initially set “red lines” suggesting a clean break with the EU on trade and immigration, but last month, amid mounting pressure from business and labor unions, she secured a cabinet majority for a softer form of leaving. That angered Brexit supporters. Both initiatives could yet produce results. Still, there’s a shared lesson: that success will require navigating a complex web of political and diplomatic challenges.

Five thousand miles separate Downing Street, home to British Prime Minister Theresa May, and the Ryongsong Residence, the decidedly grander domestic surroundings of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

But both Britain and North Korea have become powerful exemplars of a stubborn law of international affairs: that a single “breakthrough” event may pave the way for, but rarely in itself creates, the new reality its cheerleaders foresee. That’s where the challenges, and complications, begin.

For Britain, the issue is Brexit: the 2016 referendum calling for an end to its decades-long membership of the European Union. In North Korea’s case, it was the unprecedented decision by US President Trump to sit down for a summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June of this year.

After each event, the cheerleaders were in full voice. Ardent advocates of Brexit spoke of a Britain liberated, with the promise of rich new trade opportunities worldwide far outweighing any short-term economic pain from breaking with the country’s largest and closest market. Immediately after returning from the Singapore summit, Mr. Trump tweeted: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

Now, the daunting complexity of redeeming those promises is hitting home.

Trump cancelled a visit to Pyongyang late last month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Though the timing was a surprise – the trip had been announced barely 24 hours earlier – the reasoning wasn’t. “I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the president declared.

No plan for 'how'

It was never going to be easy. Though the summit communiqué did include a commitment to denuclearization, it didn’t say how or when this was going to happen, or be verified. And after the televised embrace in Singapore effectively ended the North Korean leader’s diplomatic pariah status, it inevitably became harder to get international cooperation on Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions.

That’s been especially true of China, through which nearly all North Korean trade passes, at a time when the United States is in a tit-for-tat tariff battle to try to get the Chinese to alter their behavior on trade and intellectual property issues. And not only has North Korea balked at starting to dismantle, or even identify, their nuclear sites. US intelligence reports, echoed by a report voicing “grave concern” from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, indicate the North Koreans are continuing their nuclear weapons program.

Britain’s Prime Minister May is also facing hard realities in putting Brexit into practice. She has repeatedly emphasized her commitment to follow through on the referendum result. Aware of the need to keep her party on side, she initially set a series of “red lines” suggesting a clean break with the EU on trade and on another key Brexit issue: immigration and the freedom of EU citizens to settle in Britain.

But last month, amid mounting pressure from business and labor unions to minimize the economic fallout, she secured a cabinet majority for a softer form of leaving. This included a proposal that Britain and the EU would still follow “common rules” for trade in goods and agricultural products, and a “mobility framework” under which EU and British citizens could continue to move for study or work purposes.

Even that may not fly. Britain is due to leave on March 29 of next year, triggering a 21-month transition to ease the process. Not only has Mrs. May’s plan set off a storm of opposition from harder-line Brexit supporters in her own party. It leaves a number of issues unresolved and still must be accepted by openly skeptical EU negotiators, the European Parliament, the leaders of the other 27 member states, and Britain’s own Parliament.

Both the Brexit and Korea “breakthroughs” could yet produce results. On Brexit, optimists argue there is still likely to be at least a framework agreement with the EU before March 2019. All parties, notably Germany and France as core EU powers, recognize that a “no deal” scenario would risk economic disruption and damage not just for Britain but the EU. And while Trump’s statement cancelling the Pompeo visit was downbeat on denuclearization, and overtly critical of China, he did add “warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim,” and said he looked forward to “seeing him soon.”

Still, the shared lesson so far is clear: Success, if and when it’s delivered, will require navigating a complex web of political and diplomatic challenges.

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