Is time on Pyongyang’s side?
The author is a Washington correspondent at the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korea is acting as if it has the upper hand in the denuclearization negotiations with the United States. The working-level talks in Stockholm on Oct. 5 were payback for U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt departure from the meeting room in Hanoi, Vietnam. North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Myong-gil left the negotiation after just six hours and unilaterally declared that the talks had failed.
The content was also the same. He said that suspending nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches was a preemptive denuclearization measure and demanded that United Nations sanctions and separate sanctions by the United States be lifted. He overturned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s proposal in Hanoi to exchange a shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility with the lifting of five major UN sanctions and demanded unilateral concession from Washington. He also said that he had no will to negotiate before a complete and irreversible retraction of hostile policy against North Korea.
What changed North Korea’s attitude seven months after returning empty-handed from Hanoi remains a question not just for U.S. negotiator Stephen Biegun but also for South Korea. Experts in Washington claim that North Korea has become a mid-weight nuclear power with more than 30 nuclear warheads and solid fuel-based ballistic missile technology. The international sanctions also have loosened thanks to the cozy relationship among North Korea, China and Russia. But most of all, experts say that North Korea wants to take advantage of Trump’s impeachment crisis. Pyongyang may have decided that it is the right time to get as much as they can.
Ambassador Kim turned down Biegun’s proposal to meet again in two weeks and asked him to meet again by the end of the year, which coincides with the Democratic Party’s (DP) impeachment vote in the House. While the impeachment bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, where the Republican Party has the majority, Pyongyang seems to have calculated that Trump would be impatient to get some tangible results from negotiations with North Korea before the state primaries begin in Iowa in February 2020.
However, Trump is not moving according to Pyongyang’s calculations. He is not showing much interest in negotiations with North Korea as he is busy fighting against the DP in what he calls a “civil war” and “constitutional crisis.” If North Korea fires an ICBM and threatens the United States, the game is over. Trump can use security as a campaign weapon. After visiting Washington, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon said he needed to be careful because no one knows what North Korea would pick on.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 11, Page 32