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U.S., N. Korea Remain Apart over another Summit

#Issues l 2020-07-16

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ YONHAP News

On July 10, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the possibility of another summit between the U.S. and North Korea is still open. The previous day, he also stressed that the U.S. is very hopeful about continuing dialogue with Pyongyang. Here is Dr. Oh Gyeong-seob from the Korea Institute for National Unification to explain the positive mood within the U.S. about a third North Korea-U.S. summit. 


Not only U.S. President Donald Trump but the State Department has also reiterated its position that it will proceed with North Korea-U.S. dialogue. Pompeo has said that the U.S. is very hopeful that it can continue to have this conversation. 

It could be anything below a summit, or if it is deemed appropriate and there is a beneficial action to take place to have senior leaders get back together as well. 


U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who is also the U.S. special representative for North Korea, visited Japan on July 9 and 10. According to the State Department, Biegun stressed that the U.S. is ready to hold dialogue with North Korea during his separate meetings with Japan’s Foreign Minister Tohimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Taro Kono. 


Earlier, on July 7, Trump said that he understands the North wants to meet and the U.S. would certainly do that. Amid growing uncertainty over the prospects of Trump winning a second term in the election in November, Trump and his administration seem to be considering another summit with North Korea as a means of turning the situation around. With both Trump and Pompeo leaving the possibility of such a meeting open, some speculate that the summit might take place as an “October surprise” just before the election. 


A series of polls in the U.S. has shown that Joe Biden is leading Trump by nearly 10 percent, with seniors aged 65 and older increasingly turning against Trump. To turn things around, Trump’s campaign team seems to be preparing for various cards, including a third North Korea-U.S. summit. For now, however, the possibility of the so-called “October surprise” is rather low. That’s because North Korea is unlikely to accept Washington’s demand for denuclearization. Meanwhile, it is difficult for the U.S. to elicit concessions from North Korea concessions that are dramatic enough to bring victory to Trump. Time is running out for another North Korea-U.S. summit. Moreover, the two countries have to overcome a number of obstacles before reaching any meaningful agreement on denuclearization. 


In response to Washington’s recent positive stance toward a summit with Pyongyang, Kim Yo-jong, who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister and first vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, ruled out the possibility of holding the summit this year. In a statement on July 10, she explained the reasons in detail. 


Kim cited three reasons. First, she stressed that it is the U.S., not North Korea, who needs the summit. Second, she said North Korea would only waste its time talking with the Americans who have no courage to try a new challenge, and the summit may damage the special relationship maintained between the two leaders. Third, she said there was absolutely no need for the summit because “trash” like Bolton had predicted it. As if she saw right through Trump’s mind, she said that North Korea would never let Trump use a North Korea-U.S. third summit for his election campaign. 


While showing a strong stance, Kim still used the expression, “my personal opinion.” She also left the door open for dialogue, saying that they never know what will happen, depending on the decision of the two leaders. She added that the North has no intention of threatening the U.S. and that this view was delivered to Trump. So, what is North Korea saying? It is unclear whether or not it will hold a summit with the U.S. It is also uncertain whether or not it will resume nuclear negotiations with the U.S. 


I think North Korea wants to gain something from the U.S. through denuclearization talks. For Pyongyang, there is no need to hurry as the U.S. is not yet prepared to make concessions. North Korea says it is Trump who is in a rush because he needs some event before the election. During the Hanoi summit last year, Pyongyang offered to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for sanctions relief from the U.S. North Korea implies that it will not hold a third summit if the U.S. continues to reject the offer. 

This is one of the conditions for negotiations North Korea demands. 


North Korea didn’t completely shut the doors on dialogue, while the U.S., which previously seemed to show no interest in talking with the North, has mentioned its third summit with Pyongyang. So, both sides seem to be taking a step forward. 


Against the backdrop, South Korea’s new lineup of the diplomatic and security team is drawing special attention. North Korea is expected to resume dialogue with the U.S. after watching the result of the U.S. presidential election in November. Then, the South Korean government will have little room to maneuver, with about one year left in President Moon Jae-in’s term. No doubt, the new team’s efforts to facilitate North Korea-U.S. dialogue and its North Korea policy are becoming increasingly important. 


South Korea’s new security lineup will have to restore inter-Korean dialogue first to find any solution to break the current deadlock in bilateral ties. At the same time, it is crucial to create a favorable environment for North Korea-U.S. dialogue. This is because progress in their talks and some sort of agreement in the denuclearization issue will help improve South-North relations. For now, the Seoul government should attempt to contact North Korea behind the scenes to resume cross-border dialogue and disentangle the knotty inter-Korean relations. 


Meanwhile, North Korea has positively evaluated South Korea’s new security lineup. On July 14, a North Korean propaganda outlet said that it has great expectations for Lee In-young and Im Jong-seok in the recent shakeup in South Korea’s national security team, quoting a pro-unification media outlet in the South as saying. Lee is the unification minister nominee and Im is the new presidential special adviser for diplomatic and security affairs. Citing a recent survey by a South Korean pollster, another North Korean online media outlet said that various sectors of South Korea urged the Seoul government to drop its outdated pro-U.S. policy and show an independent attitude. 

These reports came at a time when North Korean state media has stopped harsh criticism of South Korea for the last three weeks. 


North Korea is telling the South to have the courage to confront the U.S. That is, Pyongyang is urging Seoul to reject Washington’s demand for joining sanctions against the North. It’s also urging South Korea to conduct cross-border economic cooperation programs instead, by resuming the Gaeseong Industrial Park business and the Mt. Geumgang tour project. It is asking South Korea to stop cooperation with the U.S., act independently, and join hands with the North to promote cooperation among Korean people. 


While North Korea and the U.S. are exploring each other’s intentions and President Moon has expressed his hope to mediate another summit between the two countries before the U.S. presidential election, attention is drawn to whether a third North Korea-U.S. summit will actually take place.

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