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Possibility of Resuming N. Korea-U.S. Dialogue

2020-01-16

ⓒ YONHAP News

The U.S. continues to send out a signal for dialogue to North Korea. 


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. does not pose a security risk to the North Korean regime. While speaking to Silicon Valley business leaders in San Francisco on Monday, Pompeo added he remains hopeful that the North will make the right decision. Earlier, on January 8th, U.S. President Donald Trump sent a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for his birthday. Attention now swings to whether Washington’s conciliatory messages toward Pyongyang will provide a breakthrough in their relations. 

Here is Professor Yang Moo-jin from the University of North Korean Studies with more. 



 A birthday message to a head of state has political implications. From a common sense point of view, one cannot express hostility in a birthday greeting. By sending the message to Kim Jong-un, Trump celebrated Kim’s birthday and expressed his trust in and respect to the North Korean leader. Based on their mutual confidence and respect, Trump is calling for Kim to break the deadlock in the stalled negotiations between their countries. 


South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong held a meeting with Trump at the White House on January 8th, which happened to be Kim Jong-un’s 36th birthday. Trump asked Chung to relay his congratulatory message to the North Korean leader through President Moon. 


Whenever North Korea-U.S. denuclearization talks faced a setback, their leaders would seek to find a breakthrough through so-called “letter diplomacy.” Chung’s delivery of the North Korean leader’s verbal message to Trump in March of 2018 actually paved the way for their first-ever summit. Trump’s recent birthday wishes for Kim were, therefore, seen as a positive sign for an improvement in Pyongyang-Washington ties. Also, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told an Internet news outlet last week that the U.S. had reached out to North Korea to propose that they resume their nuclear negotiations. 


North Korea, however, has shown a hard-line stance. On January 11th, senior advisor of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry Kim Kye-gwan said in a statement that there would never be negotiations like those that took place in Vietnam, in which North Korea proposed exchanging a core nuclear facility for the lifting of some U.N. sanctions. 


The North Korean official’s remarks have two implications. First, North Korea is trying to say that it will never give up its nuclear weapons programs even if stronger sanctions are imposed in the future. Second, it seems to be underlining Washington’s hostile policy toward Pyongyang. Simply put, North Korea claims that Washington’s sanctions against the North are part of its hostile policy. In this vein, the North stresses that the U.S. should abandon its hostile policy FIRST before it denuclearizes itself. 


In the latest statement, North Korea revealed its distrust and displeasure with the U.S. It is viewed as a threat that the North will no longer be bound by nuclear talks that have only disclosed the widely differing views between the two countries.


But Pyongyang has not let go of its wish for dialogue yet. Kim Kye-gwan also said that the North Korean regime received a birthday message for its leader directly through a personal letter from Trump, indicating that communication channels between the two nations are still open. 


It is assumed that there are about four communication channels between North Korea and the U.S. They include the well-known New York channel, the NGO channel and the Military Armistice Commission channel at the truce village of Panmunjom. In addition, a hotline between the leaders of the two countries was presumably established after their first summit in Singapore. 


North Korea has often mentioned preconditions for its denuclearization, saying that it has no reason to possess nuclear weapons as long as the U.S. does not pose a military threat to North Korea and scraps its hostile policy toward the communist regime. That means Pyongyang will not take any denuclearization measure unless the U.S. eliminates obstacles to North Korea’s survival and growth. If the U.S. shows clear signs of accepting Pyongyang’s demand on this part, the North is willing to engage in dialogue at any time. I think this is what North Korea is trying to say. 


North Korea’s recent statement once again calls attention to basic conditions for denuclearization talks that the nation has mentioned and clarified its position about how the negotiations should proceed. Kim Kye-gwan’s rhetoric may sound rather tough, but on the inside, it contains a message that dialogue is possible if the U.S. makes big concessions. 


While Pyongyang has sent the ball back to Washington’s court, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged North Korea on Monday to return to the negotiation table. Through Pompeo’s message, the U.S. continues to express its hope to keep the dialogue momentum afloat. He said that North Korea’s weapons systems do pose a real risk and America doesn’t pose a security risk to the North. The remarks certainly deserve attention, as the U.S. has reiterated its view that it will ease sanctions against the North and guarantee the regime’s security as well if Pyongyang implements denuclearization. 


However, it seems difficult for Washington to accept Pyongyang’s position that it will not return to dialogue without concessions. 


The U.S. makes it clear that North Korea should denuclearize itself first and then the U.S. will provide a security assurance. In the negotiation process, North Korea will argue that the U.S. should ease sanctions and guarantee security in exchange for the North’s denuclearization in a synchronized manner. The North believes that it can find a compromise on this part. 


But for now, the possibility of Washington’s accepting Pyongyang’s demands is rather low because it adheres to the position that it can ease sanctions only after North Korea shows a clear and detailed denuclearization roadmap. With the U.S. now entering presidential election mode, Trump has to deal with the impeachment charges against him. So I don’t think the U.S. president can afford to focus on North Korea issues now. 


Trump is entering a reelection campaign this year. It will be almost impossible for him to ease sanctions on North Korea right now, with the North not even presenting a denuclearization roadmap. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are another factor that may affect North Korea-U.S. dialogue. Although the tensions have hit a lull, the American president is expected to focus on Iran-related issues for the time being. 


Kim Jong-un, for his part, might think that he had better take some time in this situation. As a result, it could be even more difficult to move North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks forward. 


While the U.S. stresses dialogue, North Korea has demanded since the end of last year that Washington stop the combined military exercises with South Korea, scrap the plan to deploy its strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula and ease sanctions on the North. So, it won’t be easy for Pyongyang and Washington to hold meaningful dialogue anytime soon. For the U.S., it is important to prevent North Korea from launching high-intensity provocations and keep the situation from worsening. So it could just pretend to emphasize dialogue on one hand, while focusing more on managing the situation on the other hand. I think the stalemate in their ties will continue for some time. Even if they make contact somehow, it will be difficult to produce a positive result, unless the U.S. takes a substantial measure to withdraw what North Korea claims is its hostile policy. 


In his New Year press conference on Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that it’s too early to be pessimistic about North Korea-U.S. dialogue. He said that the South Korean government would make more efforts to induce the two sides to hold talks, as there is not much time left. As Moon pointed out, both North Korea and the U.S. should come back to the dialogue table before their nuclear standoff is drawn out further. 

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