As the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to take place in Vietnam in late February, both countries started to discuss the possibilities of boosting bilateral relations by exchanging liaison officers, CNN reported on Monday, citing two sources with knowledge of the discussions.
After Kim announced his intentions to engage in denuclearization negotiations at the beginning of 2018, North Korea broke out the diplomatic isolation it faced in the international community because of the rapid progress of its nuclear arms program. The North Korean leader met with a sitting US president for the first time during a historic summit in June in Singapore.
Top Foreign Policy Goal
"To be honest, the primary foreign policy goal for North Korea has always been to improve relations with the United States and establish formal bilateral diplomatic relations. Through denuclearization negotiations, a North Korean leader was able to hold a summit with a US president. This was a major diplomatic breakthrough for North Korea, especially as Pyongyang has yet to make substantial concessions on denuclearization. This is indeed a major victory for North Korea’s foreign policy. If both countries will establish quasi-diplomatic relations by setting up liaison offices, North Korea looks to be having the upper hand as the situation is moving toward its favour," Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, which trains Chinese officials in Beijing, told Sputnik.
The expert explained that North Korea secured such diplomatic success without offering substantial concessions on denuclearization.
"What North Korea has done in terms of denuclearization is only about freezing its nuclear arms program. It’s not about giving up its nuclear weapons. If you only freeze your nuclear program, without giving up your existing nuclear arsenal, you have become a nuclear state in reality," he said.
The expert noted that the nuclear facilities North Korea has dismantled or proposed to disable are mostly research facilities that are no longer needed, as the nation has already built a sizable nuclear arsenal.
Softer US Demand
Following the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore last year, both sides agreed to work toward "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." This description of denuclearization is far from the "complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" of North Korea’s nuclear weapons the United States used to demand.
In subsequent statements regarding the further peace talks with North Korea, US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun described the goal for the United States as "to achieve final, fully, verified denuclearization of North Korea."
Zhang, the Beijing-based expert, pointed out that changes in the description of denuclearization, especially the removal of the word "irreversible," could indicate that the United States has softened its demand on North Korea and could allow Pyongyang to maintain the capability to produce nuclear weapons in the future.
"The United States has taken several steps back on the nuclear issue of North Korea. The United States used to use stress on the ‘complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement’ of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. But today, the demand for ‘irreversible’ is no longer there. Without this word, it could match with Pyongyang’s stance perfectly. It’s possible for North Korea to hand over its existing nuclear arsenal. But it has to maintain the capability to produce nuclear weapons, which means the denuclearization is ‘reversible.’ Trump could be satisfied with such a deal because he could achieve ‘final, fully, verified denuclearization of North Korea’ during his term, without worrying about whether Pyongyang can produce new nuclear weapons in the future," he said.
"Theoretically, this is an option for North Korea to give up its existing nuclear weapons and maintain ‘virtual nuclear capabilities’, which would allow it to restore its nuclear arsenal quickly. But I don't see any signs of Pyongyang considering this option seriously. That’s because the kind of external threat North Korea is concerned about could take place within days, similar to what the United States did to bring down the ruling government in Iraq or Libya. It’s hard to imagine that North Korea would accept this option," Zhao Tong, a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told Sputnik.
The nuclear expert suggested that North Korea could try to improve its global image through economic reforms, but it is unlikely for the international community to accept it as a nuclear state in the near future.
"I believe it is possible for North Korea to prove to the world that it is a responsible nation with nuclear capabilities. The key is for Pyongyang to continue to focus on economic development and open up further to the outside world. But this will be a long process that could last decades. In the near future, most Western countries, including the United States, are all not mentally ready to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. No one will openly say they would accept it," he said.
Zhao noted the situation North Korea faces today is very similar to what China faced 50 years ago when Beijing began to try to break out from diplomatic isolation with the West by seeking to normalize relations with the United States in the early 1970s.
The views and opinions expressed by the experts do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.