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Zhao Minghao: Optimism mixes with skepticism in run-up to key North Korea-US talks


By Zhao Minghao    Source: Global Times    Published: 2018-3-12

US President Donald Trump`s acceptance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un`s invitation for a meeting may bring dramatic changes to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Kim made a number of unexpected commitments during talks with the visiting South Korean delegation in Pyongyang. He said North Korea would be willing to hold talks with the US on denuclearization and would suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests while dialogue continues. He also said he "understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the US must continue."

Engagement between South Korea and North Korea during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics did make a difference. Apart from the meeting with Trump, Kim agreed to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the truce village of Panmunjom in April. The two countries also agreed to set up a hotline between the leaders, which is also unprecedented.

Nonetheless, it`s unpredictable whether the US-North Korea summit will come true or whether the talks could yield results. Denuclearization is the sticking point in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. Washington holds that denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula should be "complete, verifiable and irreversible." Some US officials and strategists worry that Pyongyang would not give up nuclear weapons and bilateral talks will only win more time for North Korea to develop nuclear capacities.

North Korea`s understanding of denuclearization is more complicated. Kim told South Korean envoys that denuclearizing the peninsula is teachings from the ancestors. According to a statement released by a spokesman for the North Korean government in July 2016, "the denuclearization called for by North Korea was the denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula, including the dismantling of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity."

Recently, North Korea expressed its willingness to denuclearize if military threats against it are eliminated and the security of its regime is guaranteed. Pyongyang now is willing to put the denuclearization issue on the negotiation table, a shift from its former stance of being unwilling to talk or give up nuclear weapons.

But dealing with sanctions is an intricate issue. Just on the day South Korean envoys arrived in Pyongyang, the Trump administration declared additional sanctions on North Korea. Many Western experts believe that North Korea is running out of foreign currency, food and fuel, which may trigger a serious economic crisis later this year.

To counter smuggling of oil and coal by North Korea on the high seas, the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia are enhancing cooperation to increase supervision and planning to intercept ships involved in smuggling. Obviously, before North Korea takes concrete actions to denuclearize, sanctions against it will continue. The Moon government also said that sanctions on North Korea would not be eased for the sake of a summit between the two sides.

US-South Korea joint military exercises may also affect the coming talks. It was reported that South Korea and the US will start in early April a joint military exercise postponed until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. If the two countries could reduce provocations over the North, it will help create a favorable atmosphere for dialogue.

At present, the US, North Korea and South Korea are preparing for talks and have a long way to go before a serious dialogue gets underway. China has shown support for Trump-Kim summit and hopes the North Korea issue will be resolved diplomatically with the efforts of all parties. Meanwhile, China has realized how difficult it will be to propel dialogue. It is just like Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "History has reminded us time and again that whenever tensions subside on the Peninsula, the situation becomes clouded by various interferences."

On the whole, although the Korean Peninsula issue is witnessing a turning point, the future is fragile and volatile. Trump-Kim meet is expected to bring permanent peace to the Korean Peninsula rather than bigger conflicts.

The author is a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Key Words:North Korea   US   talk   Zhao Minghao  

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