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Death of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy

Posted March. 15, 2019 07:40,   

Updated March. 15, 2019 07:40

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U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said at a forum held in Washington, "We are not going to do denuclearization incrementally," Biegun said. "We need a total solution." He also urged North Korea to promise to eliminate all its weapons of mass destruction as well as its nuclear weapons and missiles.

U.S. media and experts assessed Biegun’s remark as a radical change of course in the Trump administration’s North Korea policy. They say that National Security Adviser John Bolton’s bigger voice has turned even the dovish Biegun, who advocated a "parallel and simultaneous" approach at a Stanford University lecture in late January into a hawk against North Korea.

Biegun was not alone in making such a change. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined him in putting pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying that he had heard a promise of denuclearization from Kim at least six times. “Talk is cheap,” Pompeo said. “What we’ll need to see is action, and that’s what we’re counting on.” The Trump administration seems to be show off its complete unity on North Korea.

Some U.S. media said that negotiations with the North were “doomed.” Conservative experts also claimed that such maximalism meant the “death of diplomacy” and that Washington demanded Kim’s “total surrender.” It may be too early to declare an end to negotiations but the stalemate in the U.S.-North Korea dialogue will likely continue for a while.

As a matter of fact, a close look at Biegun’s public remarks show he had not changed his words before or after the Hanoi summit. He just had emphasized different points. His suggestion of a "parallel and simultaneous" approach was not the same as the “phased and simultaneous action” insisted on by Pyongyang. Despite hinting at the possibility of sanctions relief, he said that a failure could be a choice. Still, it was obvious that Washington no longer pursued a flexible approach.

A bigger problem was that the space for diplomacy has become that much narrower and is disappearing. Probably, the rise in hardline voices in Washington is linked with the North’s turn into an autistic mode. Pyongyang is sending unintelligible signals to a satellite above. Even Biegun confessed that he had no idea about why North Korea is restoring the Tongchang-ri missile launch site. The North’s moves have heightened Washington’s watch and raised hardliners’ voices.

In retrospect, the past year of U.S.-North Korea dialogue that started with U.S. President Donald Trump’s acceptance of an offer to hold summit with Kim, was not smooth. The first summit in Singapore came only after Trump’s cancellation. After that, the two side also called off a high-level visit. The difficult situation led to Hanoi, but it was fortunate that the two leaders turned around without a blush on their faces.

Now, Washington and Pyongyang are sending signals in different frequencies with their dialogue channel cut off. While their rhetoric is careful so far, either side could declare the death of diplomacy first. In particular, North Korea might need more time to contemplate. If it does not intend to close the diplomatic doors, Pyongyang should not make any move that could cause misunderstanding and distrust. In any relationship, it takes a lot of time to get close but only an instant to break up.


klimt@donga.com