North Korea’s nuclear program was initially conceived useful to provide necessary wiggle room to Pyongyang to attain the objectives of normalizing relations with the US ensuring its security as well as lessening its overdependence on China. However, the country later pursued a hard-line approach in the face of heightened US sanctions. In this context, the first summit meeting between the heads of North Korea and the US in Singapore on June 12, 2018 was conceived to break new grounds in ushering in peace in the Korean Peninsula by ending long-years of isolation of North Korea from US and its allies and heralding the process of denuclearization in the peninsula.
However, many relevant questions needed answers as the process of dialogue ensued. For instance, the North Korean regime sought answers whether the denuclearization process would involve the simultaneous process of wrapping up of American extension of nuclear deterrence and missile defence system to South Korea? Second, whether the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula was to be discussed? Third, the question that bothered the US leaders and officials alike was whether North Korea would be sincere to the denuclearization process and objectives? Based on its perception of the other party to the negotiation, US chose to insist on the unilateral abandonment of North Korean nuclear program and refused to waive sanctions until North Korea denuclearized completely. The negotiation process has been conceived as a zero sum game by Washington whereas Pyongyang is expecting returns for each move it takes. This has brought the process of negotiations to a stalemate and mutual distrust has reached its peak.
The American approach seems to be guided by the conviction that a deep-sense of insecurity, aggressive nationalism, and consolidation of power by the leader Kim-Jong-un drives North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. While many experts argued that the nuclear program was intended to serve as a deterrent against foreign military intervention to the internationally isolated North Korean regime, the regime must have been emboldened to pursue a hard-line approach toward developing nuclear arsenal by learning from the instances how relinquishing Libya’s nuclear program would have made it easier for the US-supported uprising to topple and assassinate Muammar Gaddafi. On the other side, many skeptics who suspect that North Korea would not disarm argue that the country has been relentlessly pursuing nuclear program for coercive purposes rather than for deterrence with an objective to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea and forge a unified Korea. The obfuscated perceptions that each carried about the other stifled the negotiation process.
John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser condemned recent North Korean short-range ballistic missiles tests and said how the tests clearly violated United Nations Security Council resolutions and President Trump expressed his unhappiness with the tests initially but then played down their importance. On the other side, North Korea has not only blamed the US for its continuing sanctions campaign as well as the seizure of one of the country’s biggest cargo ships, it has not cringed from accusing the latter of showing bad faith in negotiations by conducting nuclear and missile tests and military drills as a way to forcefully subjugate North Korea while it advocated dialogue at the same time. It has been alleged that the US had conducted a subcritical nuclear test on February 13, just days before the second summit meeting. North Korea points to how high-ranking US officials did not budge from insulting the dignity of its supreme leadership and calling North Korea a “rogue regime”. Meanwhile, the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Hyok-chol and foreign ministry officials who conducted working-level preparations for the summit meeting in Hanoi in February were executed a month later.
While the US accused the North Korean regime from backing away from its promises and questioned the regime’s sincerity in following up the first summit’s denuclearization targets, North Korea considered that the summit in Singapore is the first move towards peace in the Korean peninsula to be followed by more such dialogues. The Korean regime alleged the US was expecting too much from a single summit without reciprocating to Pyongyang’s initial efforts at destroying the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site (the only nuclear site), freezing of nuclear and missile tests and returning of American prisoners. North Korea argues for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War (1950) and security guarantees from the US that would prevent America from attacking North Korea in future. While Russia and China wish to see a denuclearized North Korea for regional peace and trade but they view the American stringent measures as attempts to dwarf the influence of potential threats and spread its own. While Russia and China would seek to prevent North Korea from succumbing to US-led sanctions, Iran was skeptical and critical of the American move from the beginning and warned North Korea against trusting the American President who could cancel the agreement within hours. Mounting American pressures on North Korea without considering efforts at reaching out to the long-isolated country with deeper engagements would only build mutual distrust and would force Pyongyang to look out for assistance from countries which share similar concerns on American hegemony. While it is evident that the US policy of putting North Korea under sanctions until it denuclearizes itself is aimed at forestalling brewing tensions in the Korean Peninsula with rising threats from the regime’s muscular ambitions of developing nuclear and missile programs, the unilateral thrust in the policy is unlikely to yield results unless US considers negotiating peace a steady as well as a reciprocal process.