Returning to basicsWorking-level negotiations between the United States and North Korea in Stockholm last weekend for denuclearization led nowhere again. Remarks by North Korean representative Kim Myong-kil — its new special envoy to U.S.-North talks — suggested why. “Over the last one and a half years alone, the United States has imposed sanctions on us 15 times and threatened our survival by mobilizing cutting-edge weapons,” he complained.
In the talks, North Korea persistently demanded the United States lift five major UN sanctions on its export of coal and iron ore — core items sustaining its struggling economy — and stop its annual joint drills with South Korea. But the United States did not accept those demands. Instead, the U.S. stuck to the position that it can partly ease sanctions on coal and petroleum imports only if North Korea concedes to extra steps beyond destroying the Yongbyon nuclear complex. As a result, the long-awaited talks came to an end in just a day without progress.
The breakdown of the negotiation seven months after the collapse of the leaders summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, raises concerns in many respects. Due to the procedure to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump over the Ukraine scandal and the start of a full-fledged presidential race, Washington has less room to concentrate on denuclearization. Therefore, Pyongyang will most likely put pressure on Trump by fiddling with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and nuclear tests. If Trump reacts with military action, it could once again thrust the Korean Peninsula into the kind of crisis we saw in 2017.
Pyongyang and Beijing’s closeness also rings alarms. News reports say that working-level officials of the two countries met in Dandong, a Chinese city in the border, on Oct. 6 — the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations — to prepare another summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un soon. Kim is likely to request Xi extend Beijing’s work permits for North Korean workers and give aid. If Xi says yes, international sanctions will be weakened.
Involved parties must return to the basics. North Korea and the United States must first reach an agreement on the definition of denuclearization and a road map toward that goal instead of wrestling with the North’s ambiguous concept of “phased denuclearization.” The Moon Jae-in administration must help Washington draw up a clear agreement on denuclearization. It must not forget that Pyongyang has been demanding an end to our joint drills in order to disband the United Nations Command. The government must consolidate our alliance.
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