Seize the chance to solve Korean conundrum
While Pyongyang and Washington have to decide what denuclearisation means, China and South Korea have an important role to play, too
Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula was never going to come about as quickly or easily as US President Donald Trump made out after his landmark summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. A month later, he has acknowledged the reality, toning down his rhetoric and now contending that there is no time limit or hurry, although he is “very happy” that Pyongyang has not tested missiles or nuclear bombs in the past nine months. That has led to accusations by sceptics that Pyongyang is once again trying to set the terms and pace of negotiation. But there is reason for optimism, as revealed by the apparent dismantling of part of a key rocket launch site and the Kim regime’s new focus on development of the economy rather than arms.
American analysis of satellite images seem to show the removal of facilities at the Sohae site, used to launch satellites, but suspected of also being used to test liquid-fuel engines for the North’s ballistic missiles. The moves come amid questions about Kim’s commitment to the agreements made at the June 12 summit, among them a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean peninsula. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was unable to meet Kim as planned during a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month and no date or place was set for further talks. Within hours of Trump calling the two days of meetings “productive”, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman accused the his administration of pushing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearisation”.
Such sentiments would not seem to point to the smooth relationship necessary to build confidence and trust. Both sides need to work harder to create the right conditions for further talks. From Pyongyang’s perspective, a major sticking point is Washington’s failure to formally declare an end to the Korean war, promised by Trump at the summit within a year and seen by Kim as a security guarantee for his regime.
But there is also reason for Kim to be pragmatic. He understands that economic development is necessary for his country’s progress and China can play a crucial role, but that can only occur if biting UN sanctions are lifted. His recent inspections of construction sites, factories and farms in areas near the Chinese border would seem to indicate a measure of readiness.
Economic development is essential for the North, but it cannot take place without denuclearisation. Pyongyang and Washington have differences of opinion on what that means, but there will be little progress in negotiations unless they can bridge that gap. China and South Korea have important support and mediation roles.