When the US envoy for North Korea’s trip to Japan and South Korea was announced last Friday, his brief was to get talks on denuclearisation back on track. But Stephen Biegun’s task suddenly looks more difficult following North Korea’s series of weapons tests on Saturday.
Mr Biegun will travel this week to Tokyo and Seoul, where he will meet Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, against a backdrop of mounting fears that Pyongyang will conduct more tests.
Experts are also questioning the US’s insistence that sanctions should not be lifted unless North Korea destroys its entire nuclear programme. Kim Jong Un wants a step-by-step deal whereby sanctions are lifted for each phase of denuclearisation.
Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, had signalled before the missile tests that Seoul and Washington would be working towards “revitalising” the talks during Mr Biegun’s trip.
“This is very much the current effort: to revive the dialogue and discussions with North Korea,” she said.
Jenny Town, a North Korea analyst at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, said the latest tests have elevated the importance of the visit. The co-ordination of responses and messaging is now “critical” if Seoul and Washington are to keep the door to negotiations open, she said.
The allies need to make “tough decisions” on the sequencing of denuclearisation and on positive versus negative inducements “to test the proposition that a different path forward is possible”, Ms Town added.
“Sticking to an all-or-nothing approach to North Korea will continue to be unproductive.”
The tests included the first short-range ballistic missile test since August 2017, according to defence analysts. They added that the launches did not breach Mr Kim’s self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles even though it marked an escalation in tension over the Korean peninsula.
The Trump administration appears to be seeking to downplay the events. Hours after North Korea fired what it described as multiple long-range rocket launchers as well as tactical guided weapons, the US president maintained that he would reach a deal with Mr Kim on denuclearisation.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, insisted on Sunday that Washington had “every intention” of negotiating with Pyongyang.
But experts caution that the latest weapons tests could foreshadow a return to a more hostile North Korean approach.
With diplomacy at a standstill after talks stalled when the two leaders failed to reach an agreement in Hanoi in February, Mr Kim “probably thinks his best play is to gradually escalate pressure on the US”, said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and now a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington.
“From Kim’s perspective, and contrary to the Trump administration narrative, the summit diplomacy and pageantry was something Kim earned by realising a good-enough nuclear deterrent on November 28 2017,” Mr Jackson added.
Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst, said the tests were “a tried-and-true way for Pyongyang to elicit Washington’s attention when the pace and trajectory of negotiations aren’t suited to the North’s palate”.
However, Ms Kim also believes that the North Korean leader — who has said the US has until the end of this year to change its attitude towards the denuclearisation negotiations — is wary of pushing the US too far. “A badly timed major escalation on Kim’s part could risk Washington walking away from negotiations altogether,” she said.
Analysts expect South Korea to privately push the US for a softer stance to allow economic engagement with Pyongyang, with the latest weapons tests coming amid fresh signs that the North Korean leader is under increasing pressure from sanctions.
Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean national security adviser, said North Korea has had some success evading sanctions via illicit trading networks but Mr Kim was still “suffering”.
“There is a clear limit in just ‘getting by’ with [sanctions] violations or illicit trafficking. It is not going to be a substitute for official trade,” Mr Chun said.
According to a UN food security assessment, published on Friday, 10m people in the country, or nearly 40 per cent of the population, faced “severe” food shortages after the already impoverished nation was struck by its worst harvest in a decade.
Exacerbating these problems, sanctions are having an impact on aid efforts, with foreign governments concerned that providing assistance to Pyongyang could be perceived as supporting the Kim regime.
A UN appeal in 2018 to fund an urgent humanitarian aid plan garnered only 24 per cent of the required funding. Officials have this year been unable to raise $5m from the international community to help North Korea conduct a nationwide census.
“It is very clear that you can and should have exemptions for humanitarian activity . . . we don’t think a generation of North Koreans should be lost to malnutrition or lack of medicine,” said one western diplomat.
Others, however, argue that the fault for the drop in aid lies with Pyongyang.
Balbina Hwang, a former adviser to the US state department and now at Georgetown University, said it has long been “very difficult to guarantee that any humanitarian assistance provided to North Korea is not siphoned off by the regime”.
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