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A year after Singapore summit, talks are stuck

June 13,2019
A year has passed since the leaders of the United States and North Korea signed an agreement on Pyongyang’s denuclearization at their historic first summit in Singapore last June, yet both countries are continuing on parallel paths with few promises of a breakthrough in sight.

On Wednesday, Pyongyang placed the blame for the lull in dialogue on Washington in an editorial in the state-run news outlet Uriminzokkiri that demanded “practical efforts” from the United States to renew talks with a “new method of calculation.”

The urgent tone of the commentary stood in contrast to what U.S. President Donald Trump described as a “very warm” letter he received from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un the same day on the anniversary of their Singapore meeting on June 12, 2018.

While symbolically important as the first time a sitting U.S. head of state met with a North Korean leader, the June summit was nonetheless criticized for producing few practical results other than a lofty but unbinding document that fell short of past agreements reached between the United States and North Korea in terms of concrete details.

Yet Trump proudly portrayed the summit as a major victory, claiming on Twitter that there was “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” and that he had personally received a promise from Kim that there would be no nuclear and missile tests while their countries were engaged in dialogue.

In the months that followed, those talks were marked by protracted negotiations by working level officials on building a concrete roadmap for the North’s denuclearization, though progress was repeatedly hampered due to differences in interpretation by both sides as to what that meant.

It took a third inter-Korean summit and trips by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang and Kim Yong-chol, the North’s United Front Department director at the time, to Washington to schedule a second summit between the leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February of this year.

Yet on Feb. 28, Trump and the U.S. delegation surprised the world once again by walking out of the summit without inking a deal, exposing the wide gulf between the two countries’ positions.

Trump recounted last month that Kim Jong-un had promised to give up one or two nuclear sites out of five that the United States identified - including the nuclear complex at Yongbyon - in exchange for relief from international sanctions on its crippled economy, but that such a proposal was unacceptable in Washington’s view.

Talks have come to a complete halt since, and the North has ratcheted up hostility toward Washington while demanding that the United States change its calculus in the negotiations by the end of this year lest it wants “undesired consequences” from the North.

Last month saw Pyongyang testing short-range missiles on two separate occasions, which analysts have interpreted as provocations aimed at getting the Trump administration to withdraw sanctions on the North.

Experts say that while Pyongyang’s position has ostensibly remained fixed since Hanoi, it nonetheless undertook a major personnel reshuffle in terms of its nuclear negotiators that may change its approach to the talks if they were to resume.

Cheong Seong-chang, a leading researcher at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank, said the internal shift in foreign policy decision-making in North Korea from military figures close to Kim Yong-chol, who was reportedly sidelined last month, to seasoned diplomats in the country’s Foreign Ministry with a more fluid outlook presented an opportunity for South Korea to play a greater mediating role in the process.

“But [Foreign Minister] Ri Yong-ho and [Vice Foreign Minister] Choe Son-hui are both individuals with strong personalities. While they are not bound to the [North Korean] military’s vested interests like Kim Yong-chol, they will also find it difficult to present a negotiation proposal to Kim Jong-un that goes against the military’s interests,” Cheong said. “South Korea must therefore draw up a comprehensive timetable that it first verifies with the United States then delivers to Chairman Kim Jong-un through a special envoy or a fourth inter-Korean summit.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]