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A Mood of Reconciliation around North Korea: No Change to be Seen in the Foreseeable Future

After all the excitement around the historical summit between North Korea and the United States that took place in Singapore on June 12th, the world has been left in a state of confusion.

The joint statement released by the two countries was a disappointment, however it should be noted that even a short passage is an accomplishment, given the sense of distrust existing between the two countries since the Korean War. The statement failed to discuss anything concrete, and was less substantive than any other previous agreement with North Korea.

The joint statement also featured the emergence of additional variables that potentially make the international denuclearization efforts of North Korea more complicated. China has shifted toward lifting its economic sanctions on North Korea, and the United States has not expressed opposition against the action. South Korea has maintained its positive position towards North Korea, as well. A week after the U.S.-North Korea summit, China and North Korea held their third summit of the year. Within the tripartite relations between China, North Korea, and the United States, China and North Korea hold a superior position.

The summit saw President Trump sharing his intent to set up a hotline with General Secretary Kim Jong-un, but that plan has since been put on hold. After a long wait for a negotiation with North Korea, a cold reception awaited Secretary Pompeo in Pyongyang. Analysis of satellite pictures also shows the continuing operation of nuclear and missile development facilities in North Korea.

Thanks to the summit, the international concerns surrounding North Korea saw a radical, positive change. This change, however, was accompanied by a subdued commitment by North Korea to improving US-North Korean relations and denuclearization. Making an ambiguous pledge for denuclearization, North Korea successfully had the United States repeal a number of hostile policies towards North Korea, ensured the US military would not take any action in the near future, and ensured that major concerns, including missile production and human rights, would be off the table. North Korea clearly gained the upper hand in the negotiations.

I have adopted a skeptical stance towards North Korea's commitment to peace. North Korea is serious about maintaining its current regime, but not about denuclearization. Again, with the situation being so favorable for North Korea, I strongly doubt its leader will initiate a denuclearization program any time in the near future.

The mood of reconciliation will not soon dissipate, and the ongoing disruption of the sanction system towards North Korea cannot be stopped. Even if the Trump administration could not proceed satisfactorily with the denuclearization of North Korea, the administration cannot easily shift its policy paradigm from dialogue-centered to their previous hard-line approach. The status-quo during a period of hope for reconciliation—far from “Maximum Pressure”—shows that even as the sanction system has started to crumble, the relationship can be referred as the 'New Normal.'

North Korea, together with China, will make every effort to sustain the current mood of reconciliation. North Korea might commit minor provocations in an attempt to build bargaining power, but it would not risk the help the current status-quo lends in maintaining economic ties with China and Russia. Additionally, the current mood could lead to avenues for North Korea-South Korea relations and Japan-North Korea relations. Contrary to what the Trump administration may believe, North Korea is not turning to the United States for economic power, but only for security. North Korea is handing out salami slices; small concessions that will hopefully, eventually add up to the termination of nuclear missile development programs, if only to keep the dialogue going. So far there have only been extremely thin slices of salami, as witnessed during the detonation of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site.

The Trump administration is employing a similar strategy. The aims of the Trump Administration are to appeal to American citizens, to secure a path to improved US-North Korean relations, and to ensure the safety of US soil by deterring North Korea’s use of nuclear missiles. Their aim is not, however, to realize Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID). Garnering slices of achievement that are visibly appealing lends a greater political value than working towards a goal that has no guarantee of success within the next couple of years. The return of citizens' remains from the Korean War, for the next while, can be cast into the realm of political performance as well.

Each leaders' desire for tangible progress has led to the current, almost theatrical, historic dialogue. Political agendas of minor interest usually fail to draw public attention if there is no substantial success. When it comes to US-North Korean relations, however, even the smallest achievement turns into a great success to the public eyes.

Regardless of how minor the gains are, and even as the current negotiation process faces temporary stagnation, the incentives for the two countries to withdraw from the negotiations are negligible. Therefore, international society will have to center its foreign policies around this new normal.

A scenario where the joyful exchange of salami slices between North Korea and the United States results in further development of nuclear weapons is something that should be avoided. I would like to see negotiations from the United States that focus on the denuclearization of North Korea, and on peace building on the Korean peninsula. That is salami that everyone would covet.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

Ryo Sahashi, Professor of International Politics, and Director at Center for Asian Studies, Kanagawa University

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