It is normal to expect rough sailing and uncertainty when one deals with North Korea. But the recent developments surrounding efforts to denuclearize the country are cause for concern.
One big problem is that the US and North Korea seem to have lost the momentum generated by President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang last month. Moon’s North Korean visit, the first in 11 years by a South Korean president, was followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the North Korean capital.
Since Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang, however, little progress has been made on agreements he had made with the North -- arranging a second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and getting the denuclearization process on track.
Right after Pompeo’s visit, Trump and US officials said a second Trump-Kim meeting would take place “at the earliest possible date,” sparking speculation that it might happen before the US midterms. But soon Trump changed position, saying the US was “not playing the time game.” Now US media outlets report that US officials foresee the Trump-Kim summit happening no sooner than early next year.
The delay in the Trump-Kim meeting may well be linked to the lack of progress in talks on the key issues -- a concrete denuclearization road map from the North and steps by the US to end the Korean War and ease sanctions on the North.
The two key officials in charge of the issues, US representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, have yet to sit down for discussions. Pompeo said last week only that he expects to meet with his counterpart next week. The date and location have yet to be announced.
Trump’s shift to a hard-line stance on Russia and China regarding a 1987 treaty to ban short- to midrange missiles may also complicate the North Korean disarmament process.
Citing violations by the former Cold War adversaries, Trump indicated his willingness to scrap the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
It is certain that the fresh row over missiles -- coming on the heels of the US-China trade war -- will have a negative impact on the North Korean denuclearization process. Most of all, a US decision to resume development of missiles could give the North an excuse to hold on to its weapons of mass destruction programs.
Moreover, the US tensions with Russia and China come at a time when the two former communist allies of North Korea are trying to check Washington in relation to the North Korean denuclearization process. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, both Russia and China are already pressuring the council to ease sanctions on the North.
There had already been signs that the three countries were forming a solidarity. Their vice foreign ministers, including Choe from the North, who is a key policymaker on the US, held a rare tripartite meeting in Moscow recently.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Pyongyang in the near future, reciprocating Kim’s three visits to China this year. North Korea and Russia are also working to arrange Kim’s first visit to Russia since he took power in 2011.
All these developments show that the denuclearization of the North is a complicated issue involving the geopolitical dynamics of all the major powers in the region. It is hard to predict where the ball will bounce.
This is why all the players, not least the Moon government, which had hoped to get the US and the North to declare the end of the Korean War and achieve substantial progress on denuclearization by the end of the year, should abandon their optimism and instead be patient and cautious.