Frustrated by the continued stalemate in negotiations with the United States and hurting from severe economic sanctions, North Korea has increased the frequency of its short-range missile tests. On July 31 and August 2, it tested a newly developed “large calibre multiple launch guided rocket system”. On August 10, 16 and 24, North Korea tested short-range ballistic missiles again. US President Donald Trump has found solace in the fact that these are not ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) capable of reaching the US mainland. South Korean analysts are concerned and have urged the South Korean military to improve their existing missile defence system.
Unfortunately, South Korea has been the target of North Korean angst over the stalled US-North Korea talks. At his Independence Day speech on August 15, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had vowed to unite the Korean peninsula by 2045 — a century after its tragic division in the aftermath of the surrender by its colonial ruler, Japan, in 1945. President Moon also rightly observed that the goal of achieving denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula was at its “most critical juncture”.
Reacting to President Moon’s unexceptionable statement, North Korea turned its wrath on the ongoing US-South Korean military drills. Mounting a personal attack on President Moon, the North Korean statement said, “We even question if his thought process is sound when he mentions ‘talks’ between North and South while playing out war scenarios that plan to destroy most of (NK’s) armies in 90 days.” Not sticking to diplomatic etiquette, the statement called President Moon a “shameless man” and added that North Korea had nothing to talk about with South Korean officials. It sneered that President Moon’s remarks on the reunification of the Korean peninsula are so preposterous that these “would make the boiled head of a cow laugh”.
Be that as it may, the reality is that US-North Korea talks on denuclearisation are stuck despite the surprise June 30, 2019, meeting between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. At that trilateral meeting wherein President Moon Jae-in was also present, Mr Trump and Mr Kim had agreed to restart talks that remain in a state of suspended animation since the failed Hanoi summit on February 27-28. At the DMZ meeting, Mr Trump had also invited Mr Kim to the White House “when the time is right”.
However, since then there has not been any substantive interaction between the US and North Korea as the two sides remain frozen to their respective positions taken at Hanoi. North Korea has emphatically advocated a step-by-step approach where the two sides would take “corresponding measures” as they move towards the agreed objective of “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.
The crux of the matter is that US-NK negotiations are unlikely to progress till there is a fundamental shift in the current US policy of demanding complete, immediate and fully verifiable denuclearisation by the North first and a peace treaty and the end of sanctions to follow later. It is clear to all serious analysts that the inflexible policy propounded by national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo is unworkable and needs to be drastically revised.
Many US commentators accept that successive American Presidents have focused on the denuclearisation of North Korea without addressing North Korean apprehensions regarding regime survival which forced that small country to go for nuclear weapons in the first place. US policymakers are obstinately chasing a chimera that North Korea would give away its nuclear shield against any US misadventure in exchange for post-dated checks from a bank which changes its board every four years! Mr Trump, the self-acclaimed dealmaker, needs to follow his own instincts and jettison the belligerent advice proffered by the Bolton-Pompeo duo.
Mr Trump would get results if he pays heed to the view of Mr Moon that constructing a non-confrontational relationship with North Korea should come first with denuclearisation as a long-term goal. For moving towards a normal relationship, a formal end of the 1950-53 Korean War and conversion of the present armistice into a peace treaty would be the initial major steps. South Korea has already advanced on this course together with North Korea and has a roadmap for normalisation of relations with the North including an economic partnership without making denuclearisation a pre-condition.
US special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun was in Seoul last week to discuss the potential resumption of nuclear talks with North Korea. Parroting the old and unworkable “mantra” the US state department had stated that Mr Biegun’s Seoul consultation was aimed at “further strengthening co-ordination on the final, fully verified denuclearisation” of North Korea. This approach is unlikely to get a positive response from Pyongyang.
On August 25, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yang-ho reacted angrily to Mr Pompeo’s remark that Washington would “keep on the sanctions that are the toughest in all of history”. Mr Ri called Mr Pompeo a “diehard toxin” of US diplomacy and warned that, “It is misjudgment for Washington not to scrap its hostile stance with the sanctions”. Following Chairman Kim Jong-un’s line, Mr Ri added that North
Korea was ready for both dialogue and standoff.
The region hopes that Mr Trump takes direct charge of US policy towards North Korea and follows up on his words spoken after shaking hands with Chairman Kim at the DMZ, “Stepping across that line is a great honour. Great progress has been made, great friendships have been made.”
With a shared vision for the future and with strong leadership, it would be possible for Mr Trump, Mr Kim and Mr Moon to transform the Demilitarised Zone into a Zone of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The key is in the hands of Mr Trump.