Stagnation post-summit

Ever since his June 12 Singapore summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, the perception that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was the real winner of that parley has strengthened.

Foremost, the joint declaration issued at the end of that meeting made merely a token reference to the ultimate U.S. objective of North Korea’s unilateral surrender of nuclear weapons. The lack of specifics was a huge diplomatic advantage for a regime that has already detonated six atomic devices. It consequently heightened speculation that North Korea is a nuclear weapons-capable state and triggered demands for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. Second, soon after the summit, Mr. Trump offered to suspend what he called “war games”, a reference to the military exercises carried out jointly by the U.S. and South Korea, for the duration of negotiations with the North. He referred to these exercises as “tremendously expensive” and “provocative”. That concession is significant given that the leaders did not agree to a denuclearisation timetable in Singapore. This was a radical departure from the President’s previous muscular approach. In August 2017, Mr. Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” like the world has never known. In January, he taunted Mr. Kim that his own nuclear button was bigger and more powerful than that of the North Korean leader.

The U-turn on military exercises set off a scramble among White House officials, who later clarified that while a major exercise scheduled for this month would be cancelled, routine drills and training between the U.S. and South Korea will continue. Washington’s shift could not have enthused North Korea more as it has long seen military activities in its neighbourhood as confrontational.

This is not all. Pyongyang has so far dodged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s repeated demand to hand over a large proportion of its nuclear stockpile. Even the more basic question of the number of bombs in its possession remains unknown. The Kim regime has dismantled a rocket launch site, but that may not necessarily impede its missile launch capability, say experts. That leaves the handover by North Korea of the purported remains of U.S. soldiers the only concrete outcome so far since Singapore.

A public confirmation of the current diplomatic deadlock is the cancellation of Mr. Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang this week at President Trump’s instance. Acknowledging the setback, Mr. Trump tweeted that not enough progress had been made to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula and partly blamed China for not doing enough. In a sense, the latest twists and turns bear echoes of the uncertainties over the June 12 summit between the two leaders. While the seesaw continues, the world must hope neither side loses balance.

The writer is a Deputy Editor at The Hindu in Chennai

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