Realistic approach needed
North should take genuine action for denuclearization
North Korea and the United States only agreed to disagree on the extent of the former’s denuclearization and the latter’s sanctions relief during their working-level talks in Stockholm, Saturday. The breakdown of the talks, the first of their kind since a no deal summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February, has cast darker clouds over the prospect for future negotiations.
The failure belied high anticipation that both sides might have reached a breakthrough in the talks which had been stalled since the Hanoi summit. Trump and Kim agreed to resume the working-level talks when they had a surprise meeting at the truce village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone in June. Trump’s recent removal of his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, and his administration’s show of more flexibility had heightened expectations about a potential deal.
But Washington and Pyongyang seemed to be poles apart over the denuclearization formula. They remain stuck to their previous positions. The U.S. still wants to strike a “comprehensive” package deal. The North continues to insist on a step-by-step and reciprocal approach in order to get as many concessions from the U.S. in return for its nuclear disarmament.
What is more serious is that the Kim regime has not given up its request for sanctions relief and security guarantees in return for a nuclear freeze or partial denuclearization. This demand has made it difficult to make real progress in the talks. The Trump administration has reassured Pyongyang that there would be no regime change. But it has clung to its position that sanctions will remain in place until the North reaches a point where it achieves denuclearization in an irreversible way.
North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator Kim Myong-gil passed the blame onto the U.S. side for having come to the talks “empty-handed” after meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Biegun. “The negotiations did not live up to our expectations and broke down. I am very displeased,” Kim said. He put the blame on the U.S., saying that it was entirely because Washington had not discarded its old stance and attitude.
The North has reaffirmed its year-end deadline, urging the U.S. to accept its demand for a “new calculation method” for negotiations. This means Pyongyang continues to put pressure on Washington to ease sanctions before complete denuclearization. However, the U.S. has refrained from engaging in a blame game. Instead, it wants to keep the momentum by accepting Sweden’s invitation to return to Stockholm for more discussions with the North in two weeks.
It would be better for Pyongyang to accept the invitation and continue talking with Washington to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis. It is important for both sides to take a realistic approach to make substantive progress in dismantling the North’s nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang in particular must prove its commitment to denuclearization through genuine action. Then it needs to come up with a win-win strategy with the U.S. and South Korea for peace and co-prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.