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End of the deadline: What now for US-North Korea talks?

5 min read

Kim Jong Un has made it clear there will “never be denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula” if Washington adheres to “its hostile policy”, as the North Korean leader’s year-end deadline for the Trump government to restart negotiations elapsed.

Kim and US President Donald Trump met twice last year – in Hanoi and at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the area dividing the two Koreas – but failed to reach an agreement that seemed imminent after the landmark 2018 Singapore talks.

The North Korean leader issued a year-end deadline to the Trump administration to get back to the negotiating table.

The US regarded the ultimatum as artificial and in his New Year’s address following a four-day Worker’s Party meeting in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, Kim made it clear there were no grounds for North Korea to be bound by a self-declared moratorium on testing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

“We will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the US rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and lasting and durable peacekeeping mechanism is built,” Kim said in his New Year’s address following a four-day Worker’s Party meeting in Pyongyang.

“The present situation warning of long confrontation with the US urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future, too, and to strengthen the internal power from all aspects.”

The North Korean leader also revealed plans to introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, state media reported him as saying.

“We will reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the US and guaranteeing our long-term security.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hoped the North Korean leader would “choose peace and prosperity over conflict and war” but analysts suggest that lack of an agreement is a result of a conflicting approach to the talks.

“It seems the US and North Korea were unable to agree on the fundamental approach to negotiations, much less the content of them,” Jenny Town, fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of 38 North, told Al Jazeera.

“The US keeps striving for a working-level process to establish a detailed plan of implementation before an agreement is signed. The North Koreans, with Kim actively involved in the negotiation, seem to want an agreement to some top-level goals first.

“Once that’s signed, they can then hand down the mandate to the working level.”

Who wants what
Matthew Kroenig, associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, echoed those views before adding that the sequence of what each side needs has been significant in matters remaining unresolved.

“Trump is a showman. He wanted to meet Kim directly. He believes that he’s a master negotiator and only he could sit down with Kim and achieve a breakthrough,” Kroenig told Al Jazeera.

“The second disagreement is about sequencing. North Korea wants sanctions lifted upfront in order to continue talks while the US has been very clear: The sanctions will remain until denuclearisation is under way.

“That’s the biggest obstacle, for the US to get North Korea to give up the weapons. Kim’s goal is to keep and expand and also modernise his nuclear missile programme.”

In response to Kim’s statements on Wednesday, President Trump reiterated the relationship he says the two leaders have.

“He likes me, I like him. We get along. He’s representing his country, I’m representing my country. We have to do what we have to do,” Trump said. “But he did sign a contract, he did sign an agreement talking about denuclearisation.”

Trump and Kim’s first historic Singapore summit in June 2018 came after months of growing tensions marked by nuclear and missile tests, fresh sanctions and threats of “total destruction” and ended with a vague statement that failed to produce tangible progress.

The lead-up to the second summit in Hanoi last year promised a different world after the talks. Both leaders greeted each other with smiles, sitting together and oozing optimism.

But the optimism was cut short, a working lunch cancelled and President Trump decided to “walk away” from the negotiation table in the Vietnamese capital, leaving North Korea without sanctions relief and the US without Pyongyang’s commitment towards denuclearisation that it sought.

“Pyongyang sees nuclear missile programme as key to its survival,” Kroenig added. “North Korea is not interested in an agreement, they are pretending to negotiate as long as they get the sanctions lifted without having any intention of giving up the nuclear programme.

“The stakes are higher for the US in getting a deal to denuclearise North Korea, it’s a major national security policy.”

Trump’s belief, according to Kroenig, that he can succeed where other US presidents failed is driving his confidence in the negotiations and the hope for a landmark agreement.

His patience with the lack of progress and the choice of words while addressing the North Korean leader have also been seen as key to avoid an angry response – in words or action – from Pyongyang.

But some believe the emotions coming out of North Korea on Wednesday may signal a shift in approach.

“North Korea has, in effect, put an ICBM to Trump’s head in order to gain the two concessions it wants most: Sanctions relief and some sort of security guarantee,” said Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

“Kim is playing a dangerous game of geopolitical chicken,” Kazianis was quoted as telling the AFP news agency. He added that Washington could respond with “more sanctions, an increased military presence in East Asia and more fire and fury style threats coming from Trump’s Twitter account”.

And as the US enters its election year, Trump’s push for a diplomatic solution could help his campaign.

For North Korea, who before the Hanoi summit warned it faced a food shortfall of around 1.4 million tonnes in 2019, lifting of economic sanctions would have a significant effect on the country.

“Both sides have really squandered a rare opportunity. The political will is something we haven’t seen in a long time,” Town said.

“But the US and North Korean created obstacles to progress over the past two years, and both sides will stand to lose from their own intransigence.”




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