Recently the US President Donald Trump decided to hold talks with North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue. This is the country the United States had termed as ‘axis of evil’ with whom no dialogue or talks could have been initiated. Both North Korea and the United States had different demands from each other which further jeopardised any progress in talks between the two countries. While North Korea demanded a peace treaty with the United States to form the basis of any talks on nuclear Korean Peninsula, the United States made it clear that no talks or treaty could be initiated without resolving the nuclear conundrum in the Korean peninsula.
In March 2018, a historic event happened when Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for nuclear talks.[i] According to reports, Kim had pledged to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests when the nuclear talk process was on. Trump has been excited for this talk hoping that he could discuss the issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. But during this time, there was no promise of relief of sanctions for North Korea should the country agree to resort to talks. Trump is clear on his agenda- and that’s denuclearisation! Ahead of the main Summit on June 12, the two sides have met most recently to resolve differences.
In May 2018, there were reports that South Korea and North Korea were to hold high level talks to formally end the Korean War and uphold the principles of denuclearisation. North Korea pledged dismantling its nuclear bomb test site between May 23 and May 25 in order to uphold its pledge to cease nuclear tests before Kim met Trump.[ii]
However, just hours before the talks could start, North Korea cancelled the high-level talks with South Korea and also threatened to pull out of the historic summit between North Korea and United States. Instead, one of the North Korean officials had even stated that North Korea had no interest in the summit if it was based on only “one-sided” demands to give up nuclear weapons.
North Korea as stated earlier is looking forward to a peace treaty with the United States. Probably one of the reasons why Kim was eager to meet Trump was to make this dream come true. Also, meeting Trump personally would help Kim to understand Trump and his policies better and act accordingly. Even if the nuclear talks did not fructify, Kim would go down in history as the first North Korean leader to hold talks with an American President.
Probably what annoyed North Korea most to call off talks with South Korea is the South Korea-United States joint military drill in March this year. In previous such instances also North Korea has expressed its angst on these joint military drills by conducting missile tests. This time the angst and disappointment was expressed through this mode.
Also, probably North Korea is looking for the right kind of incentives and economic aid from the United States and unless it manages so from Washington, it would not come to any negotiation terms.
In April 2018, North Korea cleared its stance that it has stopped any further nuclear and missile tests and would close a nuclear test site. But it did not mention even once that it would give up nuclear weapons. In fact, Kim mentioned then, “[a]s weaponisation of nuclear weapons have been verified, it is not necessary for us (North Korea) to conduct any more nuclear tests or test launches of mid- and long range missiles or ICBMs.”[iii] There was however, no mention of dismantling nuclear weapons. In fact, the rationale given for the closing the testing site was that North Korea had achieved its nuclear deterrent capability if one should fathom the above statement of Kim.
It would be difficult for the United States to come to an understanding with North Korea where the latter agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons-that is complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament.” First, there has been minimal keenness on Trump’s part to sign any peace treaty with North Korea. Second, it would but be obvious that the United States would demand disarming North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, which under no circumstance would North Korea agree to do even if it agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons in lieu of economic sanctions relief and aid.
In fact, Thae Yong, who was once North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain stated, North Korea in the end would remain, ‘a nuclear power packaged as a non-nuclear state.” Kim on the other hand has called the nuclear weapons as a “powerful treasured sword for defending peace.”
What would remain the main crux of the talks would be ballistic missiles in North Korea. While the United States would consider them to be a nuclear warhead delivery system, North Korea would claim the same to be a weapon of power and prestige and to boost its military prowess. Other issues that could hinder talks would be space launched vehicles and satellite launched vehicles which according to the United States would be treated as a ballistic missile test.
The US-North Korea cannot be treated as a bilateral affair as China holds the cards that would determine the result of the talks. Recently, China’s President Xi Jinping hosted Kim in the city of Dandong. Cross border trade was one of the major topics of discussion and according to reports, Chinese traders have already put in advance orders for coal from North Korea.
China which shares borders with North Korea has always been apprehensive of migration of North Koreans to China due to lack of economic growth in North Korea. China has been North Korea’s biggest trading partner despite international sanctions imposed on North Korea to sustain the North Korean economy.
China also sees greater business opportunities at the moment in North Korea, for instance, the construction business in which Chinese investors have taken keen interest. All this comes as a respite as China’s bilateral trade with North Korea in 2017 had plunged and since November 2017, China had not exported during this phase any gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or fuel oil. China also reduced its imports from North Korea. All these resulted in a big impact on the North Korean economy and probably led to North Korea agreeing to hold talks with the United States.
However, the Russian government is reported to be slowly increasing its economic support to North Korea despite sanctions. Russia is also exporting massive amounts of fuel to North Korea. Russia, which too has suffered international economic sanctions due to the Ukrainian crisis, is likely to take advantage of the low trade flows between China and North Korea and position itself more strongly in the North Korean market.[iv]
The nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for North Korea has come to them at an unprecedented cost of people starving, economic slowdown- all caused due to international sanctions imposed on them. There are least chances of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons for which the country had to sacrifice so much unless it is sure it could get a deal worth doing so from the United States.
[i] “Trump agrees to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for nuclear talks,” CNBC, March 8, 2018,https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/08/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-reportedly-invites-trump-to-hold-talks.html
[ii] “Two Koreas to hold Talks as North Prepares to shut nuclear test site,” Gulf News, May 15, 2018,https://gulfnews.com/news/asia/north-korea/two-koreas-to-hold-talks-as-north-prepares-to-shut-nuclear-test-site-1.2221853
[iii] “North Korea’s Kim Jung-un promises no more nuclear or missile tests, will pursue ‘active dialogue’ with countries,” The Strait Times, April 21, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-says-to-shut-down-nuclear-test-site-yonhap
[iv] Cristina Maza, “Russia is Aiding North Korea with oil imports, ignoring U.S. efforts to isolate Kim Jong Un: Report,” Newsweek, December 5, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/russia-north-korea-oil-imports-kim-jong-un-united-states-736144