The relationship between North Korea and its neighbours has always been tenuous, and its present relationship with the United States even more so. The recent Hanoi Summit collapse is not the first time that talks with North Korea have fallen apart as a result of an unwillingness to denuclearize.
The recent failure of the talks is an unfortunate result that many had hoped would not be the case in this present round of discussions, especially at such a critical turning point, where the move towards shutting down of the North Korean Nuclear weapons progress seemed to be making progress. However, the same flaws that lead to the failure of the Six-Party talks years ago have once more emerged during this present round of negotiations.
The negotiations that have been ongoing between North Korea and the United States recently fell apart in the face of both sides being unwilling to alter their position: North Korea had wished to eliminate sanctions that had been put in place by the U.S., while the U.S. pushed for the dismantling of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific centre. It has been confirmed that this unwillingness to allow for the lifting of trade sanctions is what ultimately resulted in the failure of the talks in Hanoi, as North Korea has been seeking to lift these sanctions in order to get relief to their troubled state.
Even more concerning has been the Tongchang-ri launch site, of which recent reports from the National Intelligence Service — South Korea’s chief intelligence agency — indicated that North Korea appears to be undertaking repairs on the partially dismantled site. Images taken between February 16 and March 2 show that the launchpad has been rebuilt over the course of this period, showcasing further breaking down of trust between both parties.
The failure of the Hanoi Summit and the possible return of North Korea to its commitment of nuclear armament is an unfortunate turn of events. However, it is one that had not been entirely unexpected. The last attempt at mediation had been during the Six-Party talks, which saw China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the U.S. entering into negotiations with one another about the best way to de-escalate the nuclear intentions of North Korea. However, the discussion fell apart, and remained ineffective at reaching a solution between the actors involved for several reasons.
The primary reason was that there had been a notable lack of trust between all of the actors to uphold their own agreements, which saw the talks breaking down. Distrust and an unwillingness to compromise were what lead to the initial unsuccessful attempt at a North Korean denuclearization, and it is those same flaws that are once more emerging in the most recent talks.
During the Hanoi Summit, President Trump’s desire to have the Korean Peninsula denuclearized conflicted with North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un’s desire for ease of sanctions on North Korea. However, the fault behind the failure of the summit may not rest solely on the U.S. President. Both leaders had been unwilling to reach a compromise, and as with the past, the same actions and attitudes that prevailed in the previous attempts at negotiation are once again threatening to undo the peace between these two nations, which could thereby halt progress towards denuclearization of North Korea.
Throughout history, North Korea and the U.S. have had considerable difficulty reconciling their differences, and have been subject to the same pitfalls of distrust and being uncompromising in their demands. However, the past twelve months have seen some progress towards greater cooperation. A large part of this can be attributed to the work of South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who has been making great strides and efforts to reconcile with the North to the best of his ability. It was due to this desire to see peace between his two states and bringing stability to the region that the Winter Olympics saw a united Korean team competing together in the ice hockey event.
The 2020 Olympics being held in Beijing is set to continue this trend of a united Korean team, with both countries making plans to compete together under the same banner, and there are also reports of plans for the two states to co-host the 2032 Summer games. While these plans may now face an uncertain future, given the resuming of military exercises in South Korea with the U.S., the role that South Korea has played in bringing both actors together should not be underestimated. This relationship played a critical part in bringing North Korea to the table to negotiate with the U.S., aiding to alleviate tensions just enough to get a base-line agreement between both countries.
South Korea needs to continue to act as a go-between for both states to ensure that this relationship is upheld, and that the momentum continues with negotiations. It also can help to ensure that both sides are able to continue to meet in order to bring about a more satisfactory conclusion. Both the U.S. and North Korea need to be prepared to break through their mutual distrust and strict demands in order to work together in a more productive manner to achieve their goals.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi believes that there has been a substantial improvement between both countries’ relationships over the course of twelve months, but that these problems need to be resolved or else it will risk failure as the Six-Party Talks had before it. In a recent piece in the South China Morning Post, Minister Yi claimed that, “All parties should have reasonable expectations. We should not set a threshold too high, nor should we unilaterally impose unrealistic demands.” He then added, “The key to solving the issue lies in not being a prisoner of history but in breaking the cycle of mistrust.”
Minister Yi also remarked on the need for a road-map towards disarmament, outlining the steps needed to be met by both leaders for them to reach the desired goals. A more clear-cut plan would be beneficial to both leaders, allowing their countries to work towards their mutual goals efficiently and temper expectations. China’s role that it can play in bringing the U.S. and North Korea together should likewise not be underestimated, as Beijing has a long history with North Korea and the U.S., giving it a vested interest in ensuring that conflict does not escalate between both nations.
Much of the progress between negotiations can be attributed to third-party actors easing tensions between the states, and if the talks are to have any hope of continuing to be productive, the role of China and South Korea should continue to be immensely important.
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