• Wednesday, Jan 22, 2020
  • Last Update : 05:32 pm

Keep the diplomatic momentum going

  • Published at 12:01 am March 17th, 2019
North Korea USA
All eyes on North Korea REUTERS

It is necessary to achieve denuclearization and lasting peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula

The two leaders of North Korea and the US held a landmark summit in Singapore in June 2018. That meeting produced a vague statement in which Kim and Trump outlined four commitments without an exact timeline -- establishing “new relations” for peace and prosperity; building a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”; working “towards denuclearization”; and recovering and repatriating the remains of soldiers killed during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

This time round good vibes continued between the US and the DPRK throughout the summit convened in Hanoi, Vietnam -- after 261 days of the first meeting in Singapore. 

The usually reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to the surprise of the media, even showed signs of opening up -- responding directly to questions from American journalists. Heady talks abounded that a peace declaration was a real possibility, putting the US and North Korea on a path toward finally ending the Korean War, which is approaching its seventh decade.

Then, suddenly, it was all for nought. The second day of the summit was cut short; North Korea and the US have offered competing narratives about why the talks fell through.

North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Yong Ho has mentioned that North Korea had offered a proposal -- verified dismantlement of Yongbyon in exchange for a “partial lifting” of five of the 11 sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations in “areas that hamper civilian economy and people’s lives.” 

Ri Yong Ho also pointed out that: “During the meeting, the US insisted that we should take one more step beside the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in the Yongbyon area. Therefore, it became clear that the US was not ready to accept our proposal.”

It would appear that the UN sanctions that North Korea wanted to lift, might have been referring to a significant range of economic activities including importation of petroleum.

Trump’s response was very subtle: “We brought many, many points up that I think they were surprised that we knew.” He then referred to another nuclear fuel enrichment site in North Korea in addition to Yongbyon. This might have been related to the “one additional measure” that North Korea found unpalatable and subsequently pushed the summit to an impasse.

The media has also reported US officials saying that the North Koreans would not define exactly what they meant by the Yongbyon complex. The US is believed to have asked North Korea to include within the equation other hitherto unpublished nuclear facilities. The two sides could not agree on what were the connotations of denuclearization.

Observers have pointed out that there was no indication from Trump or the White House as to whether the two leaders will meet again. Trump and his administration have made a delicate signal but an important shift in his approach toward North Korea’s denuclearization denotations. 

He has now pointed out that he (Trump) is finally beginning to accept what many nonproliferation experts have been saying for some time -- denuclearization of North Korea will be a long and complex process that may last over a decade.

It would be important at this juncture to refer to the observations that had been made before the Hanoi Summit by Russia and China. Apparently, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov had remarked that there is no quick solution to the Korean Peninsula issue and China is supposed to have also urged North Korea and the US to meet each other halfway. They had both stressed that it was necessary to achieve denuclearization and lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. After the impasse in Hanoi, both these countries remain worried.

It would also be pertinent to mention that many prominent politicians from the US Democratic Party have been quite cynical about Kim’s prospect of normalizing relations with the US. 

Earlier, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi had openly expressed doubts over the peace process, saying Pyongyang’s goal was not to denuclearize, but to weaken South Korea’s military preparedness. Members of this US political party will now probably be happy with what has happened.

Several analysts from South Korea have noted that while South Korean President Moon might again step in to play the role of mediator, many South Korean officials have privately expressed their frustrations that North Korea has not been doing enough to move the diplomatic efforts forward.

Nevertheless, one should not think that chances of further bilateral discussion between the US and the DPRK have been deleted. The window of opportunity for Kim might have slightly reduced but President Trump’s comments during and after the meeting suggest that it is still open. 

Both Trump and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo have told the media that the US and North Korea have made progress and that they were hopeful for a further discussion. 

Trump has also indicated that the US would not increase sanctions, essentially maintaining the status quo of freeze-for-freeze. Meaning that the United States will not impose any further sanctions, will keep the joint military drills with South Korea scaled back (as agreed to in the Singapore summit in June 2018) and that North Korea will not test nuclear weapons or missiles.

One can only hope that North Korea does not do anything globally unacceptable in the next few weeks. This will include Kim not reverting to old habits of attracting US attention by resuming nuclear and/or missile tests. 

This would only enhance calls for keeping North Korea in the purgatory of sanctions and isolation. Kim, on the other hand, could show his good faith and revive the diplomatic momentum for bringing forth a peaceful geo-political paradigm. This would eventually enable North Korean citizens to live better lives. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, and can be reached at [email protected]