The latest developments show there is still a wide gap between the US and North Korea over how to achieve the North’s denuclearization. The side that needs to try harder to narrow the gap, of course, is North Korea.
But what has happened recently indicates the North is going in the opposite direction. A recent flurry of reports that the North is continuing its nuclear and missile-related activities and that it has been violating the UN-led sanctions are lead examples.
The good point is that the US, despite the recent thaw in relations with the North, has not been swayed by the North’s goodwill gestures and is holding on to “maximum pressure.”
In fact, the US is tightening its grip in the face of a lack of progress in denuclearization that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un promised to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump in their respective summits in April and June.
The new sanctiosn announced by the US Treasury on Friday listed a Russian bank, two North Korean companies and a North Korean individual. The scale of the latest sanctions is not notable, but what’s important is that it marked the first time that the Trump administration has imposed additional sanctions since the June 12 Singapore summit, after which Trump said he would no longer talk about “maximum pressure.”
The US announcement came almost simultaneously with news reports quoting a UN report about cases in which North Korea and countries like China and Russia have been violating sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile provocations.
The report, written by a panel of experts, showed that the North is massively importing oil through illegal ship-to-ship transfers, had attempted to export arms to Yemen and Libya and exported coal, steel and fishery products to China and India. The UN report was preceded by media reports that the North continues to import oil products from China and Russia and send laborers to Russia.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Singapore for a regional security forum, took issue with the violations Saturday, specifically pressing Russia, which is suspected of having allowed joint ventures with North Korean companies and issued new permits for North Korean workers.
While the increasing loopholes in the sanctions are not a small problem, a cause for bigger concern is that the North has not ceased activities regarding its nuclear and missile programs.
The UN experts’ report said that the North is still operating a nuclear reactor in the Yongbyon complex, which backed recent news reports -- and was confirmed by Pompeo -- that the North was still producing fissile materials. Recent US intelligence reports also pointed to continuing activities at the North Korean facility producing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
These deepen the suspicion that the North does not intend to take early, concrete steps toward the complete denuclearization it promised. The US and other members of the international community therefore should not be misguided by goodwill gestures made by the North, including the repatriation of the remains of American soldiers who died in the 1950-53 Korean War and a thaw in inter-Korean relations.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho used the Singapore forum to express frustration with what he called “insistent moves” by the US and a lack of corresponding actions from Washington for what the North has done, including a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing and the destruction of a major nuclear site and a missile test site.
The North Korean minister refused to hold talks with Pompeo and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, while holding a round of bilateral talks with a dozen foreign ministers participating in the forum. Ri reportedly requested the foreign ministers’ cooperation in lifting or easing UN-led sanctions.
Ri was mistaken if he believed what the world, including the countries whose foreign ministers he met in Singapore, demands from the North was a mere test moratorium or other superficial action on its weapons of mass destruction. What his country should do in order to get itself free of the sanctions is make convincing actions to completely dismantle its nuclear, missile and biochemical arsenal.