Date
21 August 2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been making friendly gestures to Seoul and Washington to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to reconciliation, but the US doesn't seem interested in returning the favor. Photo: Bloomberg
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been making friendly gestures to Seoul and Washington to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to reconciliation, but the US doesn't seem interested in returning the favor. Photo: Bloomberg

Why North Korea is suddenly playing hardball again

Just when people thought peace and stability would soon reign on the Korean peninsula, things took a swift and unexpected turn across the 38th parallel, as North Korea suddenly called off a high-level meeting with the South scheduled to be held at Panmunjom this week.

Worse still, Pyongyang also warned the United States, which is now participating in annual joint military exercises with South Korea, that if it insists on unilateral denuclearization of North Korea, Kim Jong-un may cancel his planned summit with US President Donald Trump.

Pyongyang’s sudden shift to its old tough stance on denuclearization has cast a deep shadow of doubt over the Trump-Kim summit already scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

On the surface, Pyongyang is suddenly playing hardball again because it finds the ongoing military drill between the US and South Korea highly hostile and provocative.

However, we believe Pyongyang abruptly took a U-turn because Kim is highly dissatisfied with the fact that Washington has so far demonstrated neither sincerity nor goodwill over the upcoming peace talks.

Just as Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, has put it angrily, the fact that the US national security adviser John Bolton has been blatantly blustering about the “Libya model” of denuclearization indicates that Washington is anything but sincere in trying to resolve the issue through dialogue.

The vice minister, in particular, said that North Korea would not suffer the same fate that befell Libya and Iraq.

Bolton’s reference to Libya has apparently touched a raw nerve within the North Korean leadership.

The fall of Muammar Gaddafi and the subsequent chaos in Libya in 2011 have, over the years, remained both a painful lesson and a grave reminder for Kim Jong-un as to how he and his regime might end up without any nuclear deterrent against western powers.

Adding to the problem is Washington’s insistence on North Korea’s unilateral, permanent and “irreversible” denuclearization as a prerequisite for further talks that would lead to the lifting of sanctions, economic assistance and a pledge that Washington would not seek regime change.

That the US is not budging an inch over the terms of negotiation could be seen by Pyongyang as an outright slap in the face.

Over the past several months, Kim Jong-un has been making friendly gestures to Seoul and Washington to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to reconciliation.

Such friendly gestures included releasing American hostages and starting to dismantle the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

And according to South Korean media reports, Kim was ready to send a “special gift” during the Trump-Kim summit: disclosing the locations of two highly secret uranium enrichment facilities in the North.

However, it appears that the US has no intention of either returning any favors or going easy on Pyongyang over denuclearization.

Instead, again according to South Korean press reports, the US intends to set 2020 as the deadline for North Korea’s denuclearization, before which the lifting of economic sanctions is out of the question.

Considering all these, one indeed shouldn’t have felt surprised as to why Kim is suddenly getting so infuriated with the US again.

But while things appear to be turning for the worse, we believe there is still a shred of hope. Pyongyang is once again playing hardball, but it hasn’t refused to play ball altogether.

The ball, in fact, is in the US court. If Washington is interested in pursuing the peace talks, it should stop using stupid words such as the “Libya model” again.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 17

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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