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One Month after North Korea-U.S. Summit

It’s been a month since the first-ever North Korea-U.S. summit took place. The summit raised a lot of expectations as the leaders of the two nations made meaningful agreements, including denuclearization, security guarantee and the establishment of new relations. Here is Kim Geun-sik, political science professor at Kyungnam University, to give his analysis of how the North Korea-U.S. relations have evolved over the past month since the bilateral summit.

The historic June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore raised both hopes and concerns. The leaders of the two countries, which had maintained hostile relations for a long time, held a face-to-face meeting and reached some agreements, presenting a positive outlook for a peaceful solution of Korean Peninsula issues. Nevertheless, the agreement on the key issue of denuclearization was rather ambiguous. In the process of working-level negotiations afterwards, there has been doubt that North Korea is really committed to denuclearization and has specific plans to implement it. In other words, many still distrust North Korea.

The agreement at the summit ended up presenting some abstract goals. But many had expected that Pyongyang and Washington would speed up their denuclearization negotiations at follow-up talks. The expectations heightened further when South Korea and the U.S. made the decision to suspend part of their combined military drills. And U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea, about 20 days after the summit. But many analysts are saying that the visit fell short of their expectations. Professor Kim continues.

The joint statement issued at the June 12 summit provides a clue to solving the denuclearization issue, as it shows the two countries’ commitment to hold follow-on, high-level negotiations. The high-level talks were actually held in the form of Pompeo’s two-day visit to Pyongyang. But the two countries have yet to agree on specifics about North Korea’s denuclearization, including the method, timeline and roadmap. Pompeo apparently wanted to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during his Pyongyang visit, but it was confirmed that Kim was out of town. Moreover, after Pompeo left North Korea, the Foreign Ministry in the North criticized the U.S. for demanding “gangster-like” denuclearization. There are worries that the differing views on denuclearization between the two countries are widening even further.

The high-level talks between North Korea and the U.S. on July 6 and 7 were the beginning of implementing the joint statement adopted at the bilateral summit and the venue for reaffirming both countries’ commitment to addressing the denuclearization issue. But the much-anticipated meeting between Pompeo and Kim Jong-un never took place, and the North later lashed out at the U.S. for demanding “unilateral and gangster-like denuclearization.” Pompeo also mentioned the phrase “maximum pressure” against North Korea for the first time in a month. Under the basic framework of denuclearization and a security assurance, the U.S. insists on “denuclearization first, compensation later,” while North Korea advocates a “phased and synchronized” approach toward denuclearization. It seems the two principles clashed, spoiling the mood at the recent high-level talks. Here again is Professor Kim.

The U.S. has stressed North Korea’s clear commitment to denuclearization and its swift implementation. Denuclearization entails a complicated process. The U.S. demands that the North reveal exactly how many nuclear bombs and much material it possesses and where the nuclear facilities are located. Washington also requests Pyongyang to present a clear timeline for the verification, dismantlement and shipping out of its nuclear weapons. In other words, the U.S. insists that the North express its clear position on the “denuclearization first” approach and disclose an operational program. On the other hand, North Korea calls for a phased and synchronized process, demanding that the U.S. take corresponding compensational measures in each denuclearization stage. The two sides seem to have failed to narrow their differences over how to denuclearize.

At the recent talks, North Korea and the U.S. showed a large divide on the issue of denuclearization. Pyongyang puts top priority on a security guarantee for its regime and demanded that the two countries declare an end to the Korean War on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the armistice on July 27. But the U.S. mentioned the Vietnamese model of economic development as compensation for North Korea’s denuclearization. Apparently, the U.S. wants to discuss some inducements first, in the belief that Pyongyang’s denuclearization measures are insufficient. Although they have failed to reach a compromise, they will likely keep the dialogue momentum afloat. Despite Pyongyang’s criticism of the U.S., Trump said that he trusts North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Let’s hear again from Professor Kim.

Trump finds it difficult to separate the denuclearization issue from political consideration. He signed an agreement at the historic North Korea-U.S. summit. For him, casting a chill over the denuclearization negotiations will be an extreme political burden. That’s why he said he has confidence that Kim Jong-un will honor the contract they signed and their handshake. The U.S. mid-term elections in November are another reason why Trump cannot walk out of the negotiations yet. For Trump’s Republican Party to win a landslide victory in the elections, he should produce some tangible outcome in the North Korean nuclear issue and raise expectations for the outcome among voters. So, until the elections, Trump will have to maintain the current dialogue momentum, even if he and Kim cannot iron out their differences in opinion.

North Korea, too, said on July 7 that it still has trust in President Trump. As the two countries expressed their trust in each other, the key is how they will find the denuclearization sequencing and method that would please both sides. Professor Kim explains.

The biggest problem is that North Korea and the U.S. remain far apart over how to approach denuclearization. The problem will not be solved until a concession is made by either side. I imagine the two sides will keep the negotiations going for the time being by producing small results, such as the repatriation of the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War and the shutdown of a missile test engine site in North Korea. But as far as the key issue of denuclearization is concerned, both sides will continue to engage in an intense war of nerves.

A month has passed since the North Korea-U.S. summit. Now the question is whether and how the two sides will bridge their differences over denuclearization. It remains to be seen what they will give and take at their future working-level discussions.

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