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How the North Korea-U.S. detente is a leveling of the playing field

World Economic Forum (Global)
Syed Munir Khasru
July 5, 2019


After a bleak and unfinished ending to the Hanoi summit earlier this year, Donald Trump made a historic walk on June 30 as the first sitting US president to step into North Korea where he shook hands with Kim Jong Un. Subsequently, Trump invited Kim to the White House: this is a substantial diplomatic victory for North Korea. While Trump’s 20 steps in North Korea give a ray of hope to more than 80 million Korean people towards a peaceful and cooperative future, the reality may be less assured. Despite the detente between the two leaders and their respective countries, it remains to be seen if it will last.

Before the first Trump-Kim meeting on June 12, 2018, the relationship between the U.S and North Korea was at an all-time low. After the Trump-Kim Summit -- when North Korea pledged to abandon its missile testing and undergo complete denuclearization in return for withdrawal of sanctions -- the reclusive North Korean leader emerged from hibernation and his image started improving on the international stage. Sticking to the non-binding agreement signed during the Singapore Summit, no further missile testing by North Korea was monitored in 2018, and some nuclear testing facilities were destroyed. Kim, buoyed by his new found acceptance, embarked on a charm offensive by improving relations with important allies around the globe.

On September 2018, for the first time, Kim had a meeting with the president of South Korea. The two Koreas have restored their military and radio communications and joint railway projects, and sporting exchanges are underway. Furthermore, the two Koreas are mulling pursuing a joint bid to co-host the 2032 Olympics. Post-2018, Kim’s relationship with China, North Korea's biggest ally and security guarantor, has improved as he has visited the country four times in less than a year. China-North Korea border trade has gained traction as a number of trucks making their way across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge have spiked since November 2018. Chinese premier Xi Jinping may finally visit North Korea in 2019.

However, the reality is that while flashy demonstrations of missile launches have been tactically abandoned in 2018, North Korea continues to produce nuclear materials and develop missile bases. Instead of complete denuclearization, Kim has continued with covert nuclear program development. On September 2018, the New York Times reported that Kim has been quietly continuing the development of his nuclear weapons and facilities. Trump is finally realizing the uphill struggle of what denuclearization will entail, and is lowering his expectations, focusing on building an interpersonal rather diplomatic relationship with the North Korean leader.

After the second summit in Hanoi, news of a newly tested North Korean short-range ballistic missile, which appears to be a copy of an advanced Russian design, has surfaced. Missiles that were test-fired earlier this year on May 4 and May 9 from the northwest of the country demonstrate Kim’s ability to start testing missiles again if his demands for total removal of sanctions are not met by the U.S. Looking at how pre-2018 embargoes have been lifted and sanctions relaxed, it is clear who is benefiting more from this newly formed dynamic. Sunday’s meeting reinforces this further: While Trump noted that sanctions will remain in place for now, he indicated that they may be relaxed if talks progress.

Furthermore, the U.S.’s failure to adhere to signed international treaties in the face of political leadership changes in Washington legitimizes North Korea’s trust deficit in the U.S. The country's withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, informally known as the ‘Iran deal,’ has jeopardized the credibility of the U.S.’s commitment to international agreements.

Looking at events that have unfolded since the first Trump-Kim Summit, Kim has so far enjoyed success projecting a more favorable image of himself to the rest of the world. The U.S., on the other hand, has turned out to be neither a partner that can be trusted in the long run to keep commitments nor an adversary that North Korea cannot co-exist alongside. With Trump realigning his timelines regarding denuclearization and Pyongyang solely focusing on sanctions relief, it seems that there is still a long way to go in this chess game of diplomacy and peace.

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