False starts, failures in diplomacy with North Korea
Seoul, South Korea – No, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn’t killing his summit with President Donald Trump. Or at least, he’s highly unlikely to.
Pyongyang breaking off a high-level meeting with Seoul and threatening to scrap next month’s historic summit with Washington over regular allied military drills is seen as a move by Kim to gain leverage and establish that he’s entering the crucial nuclear negotiations from a position of strength.
Washington and Seoul, which have no intentions to overpay for whatever Kim brings to the table, have been saying strengthened international sanctions and pressure forced Kim into talks after a flurry of weapons tests. Pyongyang has now countered by saying it won’t be unilaterally pressured into abandoning its nukes, analysts say.
Nonetheless, North Korea’s surprise declaration on Wednesday was a fresh reminder of many false starts and failures that derailed previous diplomatic attempts to resolve the decades-long standoff. It’s also a frustrating development for South Korea, which has been selling last month’s inter-Korean summit – where the leaders issued a vague vow for the “complete denuclearization” of their peninsula – as a meaningful breakthrough in peace.
A look at the history of negotiations between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang:
Bad start with Washington
The United States reached a landmark nuclear agreement with North Korea in 1994 following months of war fears triggered by the North’s threat to turn its stockpile of nuclear fuel into bombs.
Under the “Agreed Framework,” North Korea halted construction of two reactors the United States believed were for nuclear weapons production in exchange for two alternative nuclear power reactors that could be used to provide electricity but not bomb fuel, and 500,000 metric tons of annual oil supply. Pyongyang constantly complained about delayed oil shipment and the construction of the reactors that were never delivered. Washington criticized the North’s pursuit of ballistic missile capability.
The deal collapsed in 2002 after North Korea admitted it had been running a clandestine nuclear program using enriched uranium.
Derailed six-party talks
It didn’t take long for the United States to be roped back into talks with North Korea, but this time in a six-party forum that also included China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan.
After months of tense negotiations that began in August 2003, the North accepted a deal in September 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security, economic and energy benefits.
However, disagreements between Washington and Pyongyang over financial sanctions imposed on the North temporarily derailed the six-nation talks before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.
The disarmament talks resumed a few weeks later and the six governments in February 2007 reached a deal where North Korea would receive an aid package worth about $400 million in return for disabling its nuclear facilities and allowing international inspectors to verify the process.
But a final attempt to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program fell through in December2008 when the North refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.
The six-nation talks have stalled since then and the North conducted another nuclear test in May 2009.
Inter-Korean ebbs and flows
Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between the Koreas have been marked by wild swings, with three historic summits mixed with hostility that often pushed the rivals to the brink of a major military conflict.
The rivals most recently came near a military clash in 2015 following land mine blasts blamed on North Korea that maimed two South Korean soldiers. The Koreas avoided disaster with a last-minute deal in which the North offered a vague regret over the blasts in exchange for the South temporarily stopping anti-Pyongyang broadcasts over the border.
The agreement led to a high-level meeting between the Koreas at the northern border town of Kaesong in December. But those talks fell apart after the South refused to agree to restart joint tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort, which were suspended in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist.
A month later, North Korea went on to conduct its fourth nuclear test, which marked the start of a torrid run in weapons tests that peaked in 2017, when the country detonated a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight-tested three developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to strike the U.S. mainland.
Wednesday was hardly the first time the North called off an important inter-Korean event at the last minute. In 2013, North Korea abruptly canceled reunions for families separated by the Korean War just days before they were scheduled to be held to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint military drills between Seoul and Washington, which the North claim are invasion rehearsals.
Will Kim go back?
Months after taking power following the death of his father, Kim in 2012 reached a major agreement with the United States to suspend nuclear weapons and missile tests and uranium enrichment in exchange for food aid. But the deal was killed just weeks later after the North launched a long-range rocket in a failed attempt to deliver a satellite, which outside governments saw as a disguised test to advance ballistic missile capability.
Even amid the North’s diplomatic outreach of recent weeks, there are lingering doubts on whether Kim would fully relinquish the nukes he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.
Some analysts believe that Kim would seek a deal where he gives up his ICBMs but retains some of his shorter arsenal, which might potentially satisfy Trump but drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Or he might try to drag out the process and wait out the Trump administration, which has provided a credible threat of military force against the North.
Whatever his true intentions are, Kim will almost certainly show up for his talks with Trump in Singapore on June 12, analysts say. The past few months have seen the formerly reclusive leader belly-laughing with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, releasing detained Americans and declaring a halt to nuclear and ICBM tests while inviting foreign journalists to witness the dismantling of his nuclear test site scheduled for next week.
He has simply come too far to go fully back. He also desperately needs sanctions relief to build his economy. In Washington, he sees a president who seems eager to prove his deal-making skills and thinks less of the traditional alliance with Seoul than his predecessors did. In Seoul, he sees a dovish liberal leader who’s eager to revive Seoul’s “Sunshine” policy of the 2000s that led to temporary rapprochement and joint economic projects. Kim likely knows he probably isn’t getting a better shot than this.
“North Korea is responding to the Washington-Seoul drills based on internal principles and routines,” said Kim Dong-yub, a former South Korean military official who’s now an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “The North is not trying to subvert the table for talks.”