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Veteran North Korean diplomats are apparently being overlooked for the upcoming nuclear summit with the United States. Analysts have speculated that North Korea has been forced to revise its approach to next week’s Hanoi summit following a raft of recent defections and allegations of spying that have sought to undermine North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The second two-day summit between the two nuclear nations looks set to take place on 27 and 28 February in Hanoi, and looks to build upon last year’s discussions in Singapore. On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee gave the green light for a North Korean delegation to travel to Vietnam for the summit. The decision is an exemption to the usual travel ban many top North Korean diplomats are subject to under the various sanctions placed on the country.
Among the most surprising changes is that Kim has appointed little-known diplomat Kim Hyok Chol to lead working-level talks with U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun. Biegun has already held three days of talks in Pyongyang this month, which Reuters reported were aimed at defining the critical deliverables for next week’s summit. Speaking to the South China Post, Biegun described the talks as productive but noted that there “was still much hard work to be done.” Recent press releases issued by the Trump administration have indicated that they are optimistic ahead of next week’s summit. It seems they are willing to ease sanctions on North Korea but only if something meaningful can be achieved toward denuclearisation. Whether this summit can produce more than just the vague commitments that June’s summit produced will be the real test for this latest round of negotiations. The introduction of some new and less well-known diplomats may aid this summit in delivering more substance and perhaps even some agreement of concrete commitments and deadlines.
Analysts have surmised that the promotion of Kim Hyok Chol may have been partially influenced by the defection of former ambassador to Britain, Thae Yong Ho. Thae himself has been interviewed by Reuters and is of the opinion that the unorthodox new breed of negotiators are aiming to drive a wedge between the often free-wheeling Trump and his team of technocrats. “North Korea’s diplomacy has taken an unprecedented tactical course, which is tailor-made for Trump,” Thae told a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday. The tactic of driving a wedge between Trump and his aides is certainly an interesting one but is ultimately a tactic which is unlikely to produce a lasting solution. Should Trump rush to an agreement with North Korea a situation might arise whereby sanctions are lifted but North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is not dismantled. Such a scenario would have extremely negative implications for the wider East Asian region and is something that needs to be avoided through cooperation and robust negotiations. Only through such a process would Kim Jong Un and North Korea feel adequately listened to, and feel able to move forward along the path of denuclearisation and economic reintegration. The process, which will surely be long and difficult, was adequately summed up by Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia: “You cannot expect to solve it at a two-day meeting, this is a long road.”
A report from monitors issued to the UN Security Council earlier this month found that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs remain intact. More concerning is that North Korea appears to be attempting to strengthen its nuclear sites to make them less vulnerable to being destroyed by air strikes. North Korea seems at least for now to be ignoring Washington’s demands that North Korea give up its nuclear program that threatens the United States, while North Korea has been seeking a removal of punishing sanctions as well as a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.
Whatever the results of next week’s summit may be, a major humanitarian problem persists in North Korea; It seems as if this can only be lifted if North Korea enables the rest of the world to work with it rather than against it. For this to happen, it now, more than ever, seems that North Korea will need to be prepared to compromise on nuclear weapons.